It’s a Metaphor!

A couple years ago, I participated in the Imagination Celebration in downtown Colorado Springs. My team from Colorado Tech had fielded a group of SumoBots to show off STEM activities. A SumoBot is a small cubic robot about 4 inches on a side which is outfitted with a couple IR sensors whose programming drives it to find its opponent, then push it out of a ring drawn on the table. Interesting side note, the robots don’t do too well out in the direct sunlight, for some reason 🙂 A little bit of shade made them work much better!
Anyway, the kids came up to watch the robots doing their thing. Since there was nothing to do but watch, the kids didn’t really get involved. I rummaged in my backpack and found a yellow and an orange sticker which I placed on top of the ‘bots. I got the kids to start cheering on the “orange” ‘bot and it won. Encouraged, we continued to cheer the orange bot which won again and again. To the kids, their cheering was helping even though the engineers in the group knew there were no sound sensors on the ‘bot. For the first hour with the new colors, the orange ‘bot won about 95% of its matches, a statistical improbability. The kids were happy, the robots were doing their thing, but the tester in me was suspicious…
This all reminds me of a fairly apocryphal story from the automotive industry (Gupta, 2007). A customer called in to GM soon after purchasing a new vehicle to complain that his vehicle “was allergic” to vanilla ice cream. Puzzled help personal established that the vehicle was not ingesting the ice cream but rather that the when the customer purchased vanilla ice cream, and no other flavors, the car wouldn’t start to take him (and the ice cream) home to his family. The engineers, understandably wrote the guy off as a kook, knowing there was no way for the vehicle to know, much less care, about the ice cream purchase.
The customer continued to call in and complain. Intrigued, the manufacturer sent an engineer out to investigate, and hopefully calm the customer. Interestingly, the engineer was able to confirm the problem. When the customer bought vanilla ice cream, and no other flavors, the vehicle did not start. Knowing about the make-up of the vehicle, the engineer conducted some tests and found that the real problem the vehicle was experiencing was vapor-locking which resolved itself I the customer bought non-vanilla flavors of ice cream because the store had the vanilla up front because they sold so much of it. If you bought a different flavor, you had to walk further into the store and the additional time allowed the vapor-locking to resolve itself.
Sherry Turkel (2012) at MIT found that senior citizens given a “companion robot” that looked similar to a stuffed seal would talk to it and interact with it as though it were alive. Researchers found that the residents often placed the robot in the bathtub, thinking its needs were similar to a seals. Though it has been debunked by Snopes, the car owner determined that the vehicle “didn’t like” vanilla ice cream. We found similar behavior with the kids and the SumoBots. Cheering the orange one led it to win. Investigation showed the orange robot had the attack software installed where the yellow bot had line following software installed instead. In all these instances, the humans interacted with the machines using a metaphor they understood, other living beings.
The lesson? The snarky answer is that the customer doesn’t know what’s going on and they are trying to describe what they see. They often lack the vocabulary to explain what the machine/software is doing. But they are describing behavior that they believe they see. The engineer needs to pay attention to the clues however. Sometimes the customer does something that seems really reasonable to the customer that the product designer didn’t think of. And sometimes the metaphor just doesn’t stretch to what is being done.

Gupta, N. (October 17, 2007). Vanilla ice cream that puzzled general motors. Retrieved from (April 11, 2011). Cone of silence. Retrieved from
Turkle, S. (2012). Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.