Big Ideas

Another Way to Experiment at Meetings

Why conferences make the ideal setting for experimentation

When an article in the Harvard Business Review starts off with an anecdote from a conference, they’ve got my full attention. What’s fascinating about this story, “When Your Boss Wears Metal Pants,” from a meetings perspective is that the 2013 robotics conference that launches the story served as the setting for an insightful experiment about human behavior.

At the conference, MIT researcher Kate Darling invited attendees to spend an hour playing with small, animatronic toy dinosaurs, called Pleos. They were encouraged to name their robots and interact with them. In doing so, the participants saw — through the dinosaurs’ gestures and facial expressions — that they responded well to being petted and disliked being picked up by the tail.

When the participants returned after taking a break from interacting with the Pleos, Darling handed out knives and hatchets and instructed them to “torture and dismember” the dinosaurs.

While Darling expected some resistance, “she was surprised by the group’s uniform refusal to harm the robots,” according to the article. “Some participants went as far as shielding the Pleos with their bodies so that no one could hurt them. ‘We respond to social cues from these lifelike machines,’ she concluded in a 2013 lecture, ‘even if we know that they’re not real.'”

The story goes on to say that that one insight — gleaned from an experiment conducted at a conference — “will shape the next wave of automation.”

Which got me thinking, but not really about robots or anthropomorphism. Instead, how conferences and conventions make ideal settings for industry-specific social experiments like this (providing the attendees are game). We’ll be on the lookout for examples of how other face-to-face events capitalize on this opportunity, and we’d love to hear from you.


Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.