Assoc. Prof. Mark Yi-Cheon Yim Researches Artificial Intelligence’s Power of Persuasion

A man in glasses and a plaid shirt sits at a desk that has three robotos on it Image by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Mark Yi-Cheon Yim is researching whether AI-powered robots, like these on his desk, can entice a person to make a purchase.

By Ed Brennen

It’s not “Take Your Dog to Work Day,” but Assoc. Prof. of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Mark Yi-Cheon Yim has an adorable pup on his desk at the Pulichino Tong Business Center.
As Yim pats the top of the dog’s head, its ears lift, its tail wags and it yelps in delight. When Yim scratches under its chin, the dog appears to smile as its head sways in appreciation.
For a moment, you almost forget that the dog is an artificial intelligence-powered robot.
“It’s a purely social robot,” Yim says of the Sony aibo, which has been around for 24 years (168 dog years) and retails for $2,900.  
While the aibo is a fascinating, high-end toy, Yim is more interested in it for research purposes. Specifically, he wants to know if AI-powered robots like the aibo can entice people to buy things. If a person develops a connection to a “pet” robot, and that robot starts recommending a toothpaste brand or new movie, will the person be persuaded?
“Since the emergence of AI, robots have developed the ability to talk with people and show more knowledge. As we tend to trust them more, we tend to follow what they say more,” says Yim, whose research interests include digital marketing and retailing.
Yim recently received an internal seed award of $14,700 from the Office of Research and Innovation to examine how a robot’s movements can create a stronger bond, or “embodied rapport,” with a person, which can in turn become a means of persuasion.
He is conducting the research with Assoc. Prof. Byung Guk Kim, associate chair of the Miner School of Computer & Information Sciences, and Yuhosua Ryoo, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
According to Yim, studies have shown that nearly half of people who use voice-operated devices like Google Dot or Amazon Alexa are willing to listen to advertisements.
“They assume the information from their speaker might be useful for their purchase. They trust them,” he says. “As the devices show more useful features, like controlling the lights in your home, people tend to trust them more.”
The first step of their research work was a conceptual test, conducted online, to confirm that a moving robot creates a stronger sense of vitality than an inanimate one, such as the Dot or Alexa.
“Vitality means life,” Yim says. “With a Google Dot, we don’t see movement, so we perceive no level of vitality. However, if it follows you around and responds to your voice, that’s very different.”
The next step of the project, which the team plans to conduct in person on campus, is to see whether a perceived sense of vitality leads to a stronger relationship – the “actual evidence,” Yim says, that people will purchase something through social robots.
“This can be a new sales channel for businesses,” he says. “Alexa can be built into a robot and tell you what kind of soap to purchase.”
Yim, who joined the Manning School of Business in 2016, became interested in social robots about five years ago when he learned about funerals that were being held in Japan for robots that could no longer be repaired.
“It sounds hilarious, but that really happened,” he says.
With advances in machine learning and AI, Yim says robots like the aibo dog are learning how people interact with them. While traditional toy robots have the same, predictable behavior, part of the allure of aibo is that it can learn to behave unpredictably, just like a real animal.
“That might be a marketer’s task: to develop new gestures and unpredictable responses,” he says.
People who own an aibo can buy them accessories like scarves and leg warmers. They can also buy them “digital food,” which they can watch their aibo eat out of a real dog bowl using augmented reality technology on their smartphone.
“If we really love them, we’ll probably want to purchase something for them,” Yim says as his aibo stretches out on his desk. “At least you don’t have to clean up after them – just recharge their batteries.”