Brand Strategy

Brand management against robot bullying

Robot bullying? Don’t we have other things to worry about? We might, but not Eric Meyhofer, head of self-driving vehicles at Uber. For him, bullying by road users towards his self-driving cars is a real problem, writes the press release. He says it is astonishing that people give free rein to their aggression, even though they are being filmed by Uber cars. According to Meyhofer, there is plenty of video footage of drivers tailgating robot cars, forcing them to brake or ignoring their right of way. “People think they can be more aggressive because we don’t take a stand or just let them”, Meyhofer complains. Pedestrians shout insults at autonomous cars, make obscene gestures or even get in their way to test their braking ability. Meyhofer calls this treatment “malicious”.

As is often the case, art anticipates social developments: last year, Swiss artist Piet Baumgartner explored the relationship between humans and drones in his video “Drones Over All. A Tribute to Pipilotti by Piet.” (The two photos are from the Video.) One can reject violence in principle, but one cannot deny that the staging of “baseball bats against drones” has a certain appeal.

According to the press text, aggression and violence against robots is nothing new in the US. In 2015, Hitchbot, an automaton that hitchhiked across the US to Canada, was found decapitated in a ditch near Philadelphia. Waymo, Google’s own autonomous car service, has also had problems with robotic enemies. Since its launch, several vehicles have had their tyres slashed and six have been forced off the road. According to a report in the New York Times, there were 20 cases of vandalism against Waymo cars in the state of Arizona alone last year.

Viennese traffic psychologist Marion Seidenberger told Pressetext: “Autonomous cars are a novelty. People feel their way towards the unknown, they are critical and also fearful. Like a child, they first test how far they can go. This satisfies their play instinct, but also their destructive rage. In Salzburg, for example, objects such as restaurant signs were placed in the path of an autonomous bus, just to see how the bus would react”.

It may soon be possible to solve bullying against technology by technology. Charlotte Edmunds, a behavioural scientist at Warwick Business School, says: “Our results suggest that it’s reasonable to assume that a machine learning algorithm, and therefore a robot, can learn to recognise a range of emotions and social interactions based on movements, poses and facial expressions. In the future, this could, for example, allow robots to withdraw in critical situations without human intervention.

There is another way, which is much simpler and already possible today: companies that rely on robots should urgently ensure that their corporate brands are more human and create proximity – so that the new technology does not seem alien to you because you trust the sender. Swiss technology companies are also still positioning themselves very strongly through performance, excellence and the appeal of technical feasibility, instead of positioning their robotics through help, simplification and relief. The maxim “A brand like a friend” will become much more important in the future. “Cold” technical solutions should not be perceived as alienating, but as part of a brand that does everything it can to develop human-centred solutions. Uber is taking its first steps in this direction, even before cars start driving autonomously in our country. In a poster campaign this summer, the global player focused on local proximity; the posters in Zurich showed the China Garden and addressed the difficulty of parking in the center. Well done!

— Ralph Hermann / 30.10.2019