Each of us has been outside at night, in the darkness of a new moon, and craned our heads backward to look upward.  Overhead, a dark blue blanket flecked with stars, cut in half by a faint and milky haze.  The lack of summer humidity meant the sky revealed its depths as if it were as shallow as a clear mountain lake. The shimmer of a bright star caught your eye and you focused on it. You were looking at the faintly colored red dot on Orion’s shoulder—a star oddly named “Betelgeuse.”  While you looked, something truly amazing happened, past and present.  Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, a vast sea of hydrogen and helium atoms on the patch of Betelgeuse closest to you experienced a shock of energy from the star’s nuclear reactions.  Each electron in each atom jumped away from its nucleus and fell back inward as the energy in the electron dissipated.  Trillions and trillions of electrons jumping and falling.  As each fell it shot a single bullet into the void of space.  One photon for each falling electron. Without any need to accelerate, they instantly left their atomic shells going the speed of light.  For the next few hundred years they would keep that frantic pace.  Multiplied by all the atoms in that patch of ocean, it’s an unfathomable arsenal of bullets flying directly at you, at the place you stood when you looked up.

And think about this: they were aimed for that spot and for that moment in time, long before you ever stopped to look up.  You were destined to make each other’s acquaintance. They end their journey, and their well-travelled lives, falling into the well of your eye.  As they arrived that night, perhaps your jaw fell just a little bit.  Out there in the dark, you felt something.  What was it?  A sense of infinity?  Smallness?  Wonder?

I’ll start with an admission before you read further.  This month’s post isn’t much about the law or the practice of it.  It’s purely about the brain and how susceptible it is to things we aren’t aware of.  If you’ve read this blog more than a half dozen times, that susceptibility is a consistent theme here.  So, while this post may not be inside of the ivy at Wrigley, I’m not too far outside of it either.

The study I’m writing about this month tests a simple question:  Does the color and movement of ambient light affect how someone feels?  Is that too bland?  Too overdone?  Well, more particularly, the question of the study is whether ambient light color and motion experienced during one’s interaction with a computer would cause its user to ascribe human characteristics and feelings to that computer.[1]  If your first reaction to that was, “Oh no.  ‘They’ are prepping us for a future filled with artificially intelligent robot-people!” then you might not be alone.  More on that one later.

I’ll simplify the set-up for the study a little bit.  The researchers had various test groups play three different games on a computer.  The subjects looked at a decently sized stand-up monitor and on the bottom of the monitor, at the periphery of the subject’s attention, the researchers placed a 19-inch-long strip of 144 LED lights that would display the ambient lights driving the study.  Oversimplifying a bit again, the lights would display pre-selected colors and patterns while the subjects interacted with the computer’s games.  The games were competitive, forcing the subject to play against the computer, or cooperative, testing whether subjects would engage in a bit of give-or-take with the computer.  During the games, some subjects would receive red-colored displays while others received green-colored displays.  Subjects were given a battery of survey questions before the computer interactions and after.  Principally, the questions measured the subject’s perception of their gaming performance, their perception of the stress of the game’s workload and, most importantly for the study, their perception of the computer itself.[2]

First, looking at the effects of animating the lights, researchers found that “[t]he participants in the with-light-animation condition liked playing the game significantly more than those in the without-light-animation condition.”[3] When the lights were green and pulsed slowly on-and-off, test subjects felt more willing to work with the computer (“approach-like behavior”) and were more likely to have a positive impression of the computer itself.[4]  The researchers also measured whether test subject would ascribe a bit of humanity to the computer (anthropomorphize) during these interactions.  Mind you, these subjects weren’t gaming with humanoid robot partners here.  The test subjects were sitting in front of a monitor with an LED light strip attached. The question of whether someone would anthropomorphize such a non-human object seems like a rather large stretch.  And yet, here we are.  Say the researchers, “Our results reveal the interesting phenomenon that people anthropomorphize devices more when they include light animations.”[5]  You read that correctly.  Humanization of a device seems to be just that simple.  Additionally, in the competition and cooperation games, subjects who had positive impressions of their computers were “…more willing to accept unfair offers…and were more cooperative…”[6]  That doesn’t bode well for us, does it.

If you read this and you’re wondering if scientists are pre-testing our responses to our inevitable robot overlords, well, you too might just be inside the ballpark and not loitering on the sidewalks outside.  Speaking of the fact that subjects anthropomorphized this monitor and its light strip, the researchers said, “[Anthropomorphizing a computer] would not only improve the user experience with such devices but also facilitate in achieving [a computer’s] more harmonious interactions with people.[7] (Emphasis added.)  Now, I speak only for myself here.  When I read this and the rest of the results, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Don’t be sucked in by the pretty lights, Grant!  That’s how they’ll get you!”  Please forgive me for this wee bit of transparent paranoia.  I promise that my list of approved conspiracy theories is quite short.

So here we are as lawyers and professors, reminded again just how susceptible our brains are to the slightest stimuli.  Whether we’re staring at the sky, ushered into wonder or reverence by a flood of ancient photons, or ascribing humanity to a computer pulsing out a soothing green glow.  We have seen the light, and we won’t be unchanged.

[1] Sichao Song & Seiji Yamada, Ambient Lights Influence Perception and Decision-Making, 9 Frontiers in Psychology, no 2685, 2019, 1-10. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02685

[2] See Id. at 3-7 for a more thorough explanation of the experiments and methods.

[3] Id. at 5.

[4] Id. at 8.

[5] Id. at 6.

[6] Id. at 8.

[7] Id. at 6.

Leave a Comment