Robots with a 'Berliner Schnauze' may appear more trustworthy to locals

Dialect study a mixed bag when it comes to droids speaking highbrow German

In a world where talking toasters and chatting cars are moving from sci-fi into real life, the University of Potsdam has thrown a linguistic curveball. Yes, the future is here, and it's asking: "Sprechen Sie Dialect?"

Lead researcher Katharina Kühne and her band of merry scientists decided to delve into the perplexing world of social robots and their chit-chat choices.

"Surprisingly, people have mixed feelings about robots speaking in a dialect – some like it, while others prefer standard language," said Kühne, lead author of the study in Frontiers in Robotics and AI. "This made us think: maybe it's not just the robot, but also the people involved that shape these preferences."

Enter the Berlin dialect, known for its ability to make even a robot sound like your friendly neighborhood barkeep. The researchers, in a stroke of genius or possibly boredom, roped in 120 Berliners and Brandenburgers to watch videos of a robot gabbing away in either the Queen's German or Berlinerisch. The goal was to find out if people prefer their robots speaking highbrow Deutsch or the kind you'd hear while ordering a pretzel.

"Imagine a robot that can switch to a dialect," said Kühne. "Now, consider what's more critical in your interaction with a robot: feeling a connection (think of a friendly chat in an elderly home) or perceiving it as competent (like in a service setting where standard language matters)."

Participants were quizzed on how trustworthy and competent they found the robot, with additional questions about their age, gender, and whether they secretly practiced the Berlin dialect in front of the mirror.

"The Berlin dialect is generally understandable to most German speakers, including those who are not native German speakers but are fluent in the language," explained Kühne.

The results were as mixed as a Berliner's cocktail. While most leaned towards the robot speaking standard German, those at ease with Berlin patter were all about the dialect-speaking droid.

"If you're good at speaking a dialect, you're more likely to trust a robot that talks the same way," said Kühne. "It seems people trust the robot more because they find a similarity."

The twist? The type of device participants used to watch the videos mattered. Those on phones and tablets were less impressed by the standard German-speaking robot. The boffins pondered whether this was due to being more open to distractions and thus suffered a higher "cognitive load."

"This leaves us without clear evidence for or against the idea that people facing challenges might find more comfort in social robots speaking in a familiar dialect," said Kühne. "But if a robot is using the standard language and it's essential for people to perceive it as competent in the interaction, it might be beneficial to minimize cognitive load. We plan to dive deeper by testing cognitive load during conversations."

So should your next robot speak like it's from the local pub or like it just stepped out of a science textbook?

"Context matters a lot in our conversations, and that's why we're planning to conduct more studies in real-life situations," said Kühne. ®

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