Robot Empathy, Pop Music Bias, and Elevator Pitches

A recent faculty showcase spotlighted new research from Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business Bernd Schmitt; Assistant Professor of Management Michael Mauskapf; and S. T. Lee Professor of Business Sheena Sethi Iyengar’s Authenticity, Choice, and Technology Lab. 

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“Over the next few days you’re going to be the human component in a Turing test,” the protagonist says in the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, referring to a test that gauges the humanness of a robot. “If the test is passed, you are dead center of the greatest scientific event in the history of man.”

According to Bernd Schmitt, the Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business, we will all soon be personally subjected to the Turing test — because it’s not a matter of if robots will become indecipherable from humans, but when. How will we respond? Will we respect their innate robot rights and feel empathy for them? Or will we view robots and cyborgs as subhuman beings made for our disposal?

This is one of the big issues that businesses will face in coming decades, according to Schmitt. As robots become increasingly human-like thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence and machine-learning, and as humans become more robot-like thanks to advances in medical engineering, business leaders will play a key role in determining how consumers respond to this shift.

“There’s a big philosophical issue in terms of self-consciousness and what do we know about ourselves,” Schmitt recently told an audience gathered at the Business School for a special showcase on new faculty research.

Organized by the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center for #CBSstartups Week 2018, the showcase also featured research and ideas currently being explored by Assistant Professor Michael Mauskapf and S. T. Lee Professor of Business Sheena Sethi Iyengar’s Authenticity, Choice, and Technology Lab, which are discussed further below.

The Uncanny Valley

During Schmitt’s presentation, he cited something called the “uncanny valley,” which refers to the unsettling feeling that humans get when seeing an especially human-like robot — an idea explored in films such as Ex Machina and Blade Runner. Can humans exit this uncanny valley to gain the empathetic response needed for productive human-robot interaction?

How to cultivate working relationships between humans and robots is the subject of new research that Schmitt is jointly doing with Carson Family Professor of Business Miklos Sarvary and doctoral student Noah Castelo. In one of their experiments, people are presented with a prompt that either says robots may one day gain consciousness or that robots can never be truly like humans. According to the preliminary results, Schmitt says this simple intervention can increase empathy for robots and combat what he calls “the worst kind of ‘ism.”

“It’s worse than sexism,” said Schmitt. “It’s worse than racism. It is just saying, ‘Because it’s not human we devalue it.’ And it seems to have to do with the fact that, well, they’re not like us. And therefore, because they’re different, because they don’t have a mind, because they’re not like us, we treat them differently.”

What Explains Music’s Gender Gap?

While Schmitt is looking into discrimination against robots, his colleague Michael Mauskapf has been researching gender discrimination in the creative industries, specifically in pop music. Given that men outnumber women 4:1 in the music industry, is there a fundamental difference in creativity between the sexes?

As a first step to answering that question, Mauskapf needed to identify what makes an especially creative song. By analyzing a dataset of 400,000 songs produced by 15,000 artists from 1955 to 2000, he was able to pinpoint the most creative tunes based on their sonic features — properties like beat, acousticness, danceability, and energy, which are explained in Mauskapf’s previous paper, “What Makes Popular Culture Popular?

When controlling for variables such as artist tenure and genre, women appear to be more creative than men. Why? Preliminary research results indicate that, because women face a higher barrier to entry in the field of popular music, they must implicitly be more talented and creative than their male peers to break into the industry. “To get into the market of people who are commercially recording music, to survive and then to flourish, women have to be that much more creative than men,” said Mauskapf.

At the same time, Mauskapf’s research suggests ways that women might capitalize on various forms of social capital to break into the creative industries — be it by tapping into audience and peer networks, crossing between various genres and categories, and partnering with major labels or organizations that can provide the capital to overcome the gender barrier.

The Best 60-Second Pitch

For men and women, what’s the best way to make an elevator pitch for a new idea? According to new research from the Authenticity, Choice, and Technology Lab run by S. T. Lee Professor of Business Sheena Iyengar, the most transformative business pitches are when the person gets personal.

The ACT Lab has brought venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, mentors, and judges from around New York City to interact with students in Iyengar’s Think Bigger classes. By watching how these outsiders interact with students, the lab is homing in on what makes an idea most authentic and investable.

“Far and above the best thing you can do is talk about yourself in 60 seconds, just give some personal details,” Blaine Horton, a research associate and supervisor of the ACT Lab, told the audience gathered for the faculty showcase event. “The worst mistake you can make is not saying your name at the beginning of a presentation. We want to know who you are. And I think that’s because it’s so tough to judge the quality of an idea in 60 seconds. But it’s much easier for us to rely on our instincts about whether or not you’re a good person or an intelligent person.”

Horton added that the successful elevator pitch also pushes its time limits. “It shows that you’ve got some real passion behind this idea that maybe I should listen to,” he said.

About the researcher

Bernd Schmitt

Professor Schmitt is Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business at Columbia Business School. He researches, teaches, and advises corporations on branding, innovation, creative...

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About the researcher

Michael Mauskapf

Michael Mauskapf is an Assistant Professor of Management at Columbia Business School, where he studies the dynamics of creativity, innovation, and success in cultural...

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About the researcher

Sheena Iyengar

Sheena S. Iyengar is the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School, and...

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About the researcher

Carl Horton Jr.

Carl Horton Jr. was a Columbia Business School faculty member from 2017 to 2022.
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