60-Second Science

Teaching a Robot Means Learning Body Language

To train a robot to be more socially intelligent, researchers catalogued how bar-goers get the bartender's attention. Christopher Intagliata reports

A crowded club may not seem like the ideal spot for a science experiment. But if you're studying human social interactions, it's the perfect lab. For example, what’s the best way to get a bartender to notice that you want to order a beer? Might seem simple. But try programming a robotic bartender to figure out which customers want another round—which is what a team of European researchers want to do.

To figure out which signals real bartenders notice, researchers videotaped the bar in two German clubs. Then they analyzed 105 bartender-patron interactions. And they concluded what experienced bar-goers may have already discerned: the surest way to get your order taken is to belly up to the bar, and make eye contact with the staff. Because attendees not currently thirsty tend to angle their bodies away, and keep a short distance away from the bar. The findings are in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. [Sebastian Loth, Kirsten Huth and Jan P. De Ruiter, Automatic detection of service initiation signals used in bars]

Of course we don't really need robotic mixologists. The point is simply to train machines to be more socially intelligent. Just not so much that they take offense if you stiff 'em on the tip.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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