Intentional Stance for social attunement

The ability to understand and predict others’ behaviour is crucial in daily life. From driving a car on a busy street to playing a team game such as football, we constantly need to be able to anticipate what other people will do. When predicting others’ behaviour, we adopt certain predictive strategies (Dennett, 2003). For example, in the case of interactions with other human agents, the Intentional Stance (Dennett, 2003) works best. Adopting the intentional stance consists of predicting behaviour with reference to the agent’s mental states such as beliefs, desires and intentions. That is, when I see a person gazing at a glass filled with water and extending their arm in its direction, I automatically surmise that the person intends to grasp it, because they feel thirst, believe that water will ease their thirst, and hence want to drink water from the glass.

However, for non-intentional systems (such as man-made artefacts), we achieve the most efficient predictions adopting the Design Stance assuming that the system’s has been designed to behave in particular way (i.e. the speed of the car will reduce when pushing the brakes). Adopting either the intentional stance or the design stance has profound consequences not only for predicting others’ behaviour but also for becoming engaged in a social situation. That is, when I adopt the intentional stance, I direct my attention to where somebody is pointing, and hence we establish joint focus of attention, thereby becoming socially attuned. On the contrary, if I see that a machine’s artificial arm is pointing somewhere, I might be unwilling to attend there, as I do not believe that the machine wants to show me something, i.e., there is no intentional communicative content in the gesture. 

This raises the question: to what extent are humans ready to attune socially with artificial systems that have human-like appearance, such as humanoid robots? It might be that once a robot imitates human-like behaviour at the level of subtle (and often implicit) social signals, humans might automatically perceive its behaviour as reflecting mental states. This will presumably evoke social cognition mechanisms to the same (or similar) extent as in human-human interactions, allowing social attunement.

Let's Talk! An interview with Agnieszka Wykowska, ERC winner

Funding and support

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme by the European Research Council (ERC) grant [No. ERC-2016-STG 715058] InStance: Intentional Stance for Social Attunement awarded to Prof. Agnieszka Wykowska. Additionally, some studies closely related to InStance are supported by internal funds from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT).

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