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Scraping real estate listing data is a red herring controversy

When analyzing the issues in protecting real estate listing data, many people are looking at it from an outdated angle, as listing data becoming a commodity actually makes Realtors more valuable to consumers.

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The red herring of protecting listing data

A recent blog post on the Realtor.com lockbox blog starts out with the rather definitive and provocative statement:

“Listing data.
It’s valuable, it’s important, and it’s something that a lot of folks are trying VERY hard to steal and misuse.”

So, I figured it would only be fair to start my editorial with something equally provocative:

“Listing data.
It’s so common online that it’s a commodity of far less value than you’ve been led to believe.”

Before the comments fill up with angry missives, I want to be clear that I don’t condone scraping, I think it’s unprofessional and undignified, and I fully support Realtor.com’s efforts to prevent it. But I also don’t lose any sleep over it, and here’s why I think it’s a red herring.

Realtors used to be valuable because we were the gatekeepers to listing data. We knew what was for sale, how much it cost, and where you could find it. And the only way to get that information was to work with us. Perhaps you saw a name and number on a lawn sign, or a friend suggested their agent, or you just walked into a real estate office and chatted with the available floor agent.

In an era where all of the information we once so closely guarded is now available for anyone online 2/47 without having to talk to a Realtor, it’s easy to feel irrelevant. Our value hasn’t gone away, and I’d say our value has actually increased because of the incredible amount of data now available online. Where is the value in a Realtor?

The modern value of a Realtor

First: Making all of the data make sense
We can make sense of all of that data and put it in a meaningful context in a way that makes it easy for a particular client to understand. For an agent that actively tours in their market and engages daily with buyers, sellers, lenders, appraisers, and other real estate professionals it’s so easy that we sometimes don’t realize how valuable it is to take a huge amount of data and distill it to the relevant, essential and important information. This isn’t meant to sound patronizing to home buyers and sellers. They aren’t babies who need to be gently spoon-fed an easy to digest puree of real estate information. But home buyers and sellers have jobs, lives, families, children, pets, travel plans and hobbies – and they can’t put all of those things on pause to buy or sell a home.

Second: Real Estate will always be about People
It’s about people buying and selling homes. Yes, square footage matters. Yes, location matters. Yes, bedrooms, bathrooms, school-districts and plenty of other data points factor into the decision. Research1 has shown that the greater number of data points involved, the worse our conscious minds are at making the decision. It’s the ability to trust your gut, and have someone that you trust – an expert – to cross-check that feeling by being able to turn and say “I can’t put my finger on it, but I really think I like this home. What do you think?” Moments like that are when real estate is more about the people involved than the home itself. While I might ask Siri where to help me hide a dead body (just for fun and games, I assure you), I can’t envision the day when people are comfortable asking her if they should buy this home or that home. There are too many intangibles for a computer program to ever capture the quirky, bizarre, hard-to-describe but important details in buying a home.

Third: Websites only capture the easy data
Beds, bath, Square Feet, Date of Construction, Schools, etc. Those are the easy fields to capture, display, sort, and generally manipulate. But what about those items that are highly subjective, periodic or otherwise hard to easily classify and assign a value to? What’s light and airy to you may be a cave to me. What about the house next to the high school field used for band practice late into the evenings – but only during certain months of the year? Can you imagine the number of data fields it would take to capture every possible aspect of a home throughout a year? And if you can, see point two above.

Fourth: Negotiating and Navigating Escrow
Ever gone white water rafting without a guide? If you have, and you’re still alive to tell the tale, then you are both insane and lucky. It’s common sense to hire a guide when you are negotiating and navigating wilderness that is unknown to you – particularly when your day job involves sitting in a cubicle and wearing stylish shoes. Plunging into the river called escrow without a Real Estate agent to smartly negotiate and navigate on your behalf is inviting disaster. Real estate is filled with wildly unpredictable animals, well-camouflaged dead-ends, and false mirages – the cost of a simple mistake can be far greater than it originally appears. Just like the wilderness!

Realtors are more valuable when listing data is a commodity

So if Realtors are more valuable when listing data becomes a commodity, why the concern with scraping?

One: it makes it easy to misrepresent who the listing agent for a property is. If you are going to display my listing on your website (and depending on who you are, I might or might not be okay with that), at a minimum, I want credit as the listing agent. Not because I want to represent both sides of the transaction (double-popping/agent level dual agency) but because I worked hard to get that listing and my reputation online is incredibly valuable to my business.

Two: Accuracy. If I had a dollar for every phone call I got from clients looking on Trulia, Redfin, or Zillow asking about listings that are advertised as available but really aren’t available, I’d have a Benjamin and a few extra Lincolns in my wallet. And these are from some of the big players that work hard at keeping their data up-to-date.

Three: I’d prefer to make money from my hard work, thanks very much. Plenty of sites using scraped or syndicated data have business models that don’t rely at all on selling houses. Trulia, Zillow and even Realtor.com (and these aren’t even the scrapers) are in the advertising business, making money by selling advertisting on their sites regardless of if a particular home sells or not. They aren’t interested in selling homes, they are interested in generating page views and click-throughs. But to generate those page views, they need your listing data. Which they get without ever offering me or my broker a few dollars…

The continuing evolution

Listing data is on the internet, and it’s not going anywhere. How and where it is displayed, how it is protected (or not protected), and who controls it will continue to change and evolve. Realtor.com wants you to know they are obsessed with defeating the scrapers. But like I said, I think it’s a red herring and pretty far down on my list of concerns. What about you?

1 Research about decision making

Matt Fuller brings decades of experience and industry leadership as co-founder of San Francisco real estate brokerage Jackson Fuller Real Estate. Matt is a Past President of the San Francisco Association of Realtors. He currently serves as a Director for the California Association of Realtors. He currently co-hosts the San Francisco real estate podcast Escrow Out Loud. A recognized SF real estate expert, Matt has made numerous media appearances and published in a variety of media outlets. He’s a father, husband, dog-lover, and crazy exercise enthusiast. When he’s not at work you’re likely to find him at the gym or with his family.

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18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Benn Rosales

    April 23, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Epic, just epic.

  2. Jeff Brown

    April 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Hey Matt — “Realtors used to be valuable because we were the gatekeepers to listing data. We knew what was for sale, how much it cost, and where you could find it. And the only way to get that information was to work with us.”

    Change that to, “Coke used to be very successful cuz they kept their formula very well guarded. Since they gave it away, they’ve become less than a shadow of what they were.”

    Coke knows that giving away their only possession of any value would be, um, less than intelligent. I understand where you’re coming from, Matt. But this discussion and all that flows from it, is akin to talkin’ about how to get along without all the gold we used to have before publishing our vault’s combination.

    It begins with a false premise: That the public has a right to the only thing we had of value. How’s that been workin’ out for us lately? Nobody wants to address that question, cuz they realize the horse is outa the barn, making the discussion a complete waste of productive time.

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 10:18 pm

      Jeff,

      Coke is carbonated water, sugar, and a few other chemicals thrown together. Those are all commodity items. The magic in Coke (if you think there is any) is how they take a few commodity ingredients and turn them into massive profits and brand loyalty.

      I think the same argument applies to successful Realtors. They take a few commodity items – listing information and customer service for example – and spin them into their secret sauce that wins them business and clients.

      The only thing that came close to killing Coke was when Coke got mighty arrogant and insular and decided they knew what would make for a better tasting Coke than the general public.

      • Jeff Brown

        April 23, 2012 at 10:35 pm

        Much appreciated. I understand now.

  3. Russ Bergeron

    April 23, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    It is not so much about protecting the data itself but protecting the copyright to the data. If you don’t enforce it, the copyright does not exist. The question I would ask is – should any 3rd party be allowed to use copyrighted material (raw materials) to start a for-profit business at the expense of the owner of those raw materials?

    I am starting a subscription based blog. Below is my first article. What do you think?
    ———————————————
    The red herring of protecting listing data

    A recent blog post on the Realtor.com lockbox blog starts out with the rather definitive and provocative statement:

    “Listing data.
    It’s valuable, it’s important, and it’s something that a lot of folks are trying VERY hard to steal and misuse.”
    So, I figured it would only be fair to start my editorial with something equally provocative:

    “Listing data.
    It’s so common online that it’s a commodity of far less value than you’ve been led to believe.”
    Before the comments fill up with angry missives, I want to be clear that I don’t condone scraping, I think it’s unprofessional and undignified, and I fully support Realtor.com’s efforts to prevent it. But I also don’t lose any sleep over it, and here’s why I think it’s a red herring.

    Realtors used to be valuable because we were the gatekeepers to listing data. We knew what was for sale, how much it cost, and where you could find it. And the only way to get that information was to work with us. Perhaps you saw a name and number on a lawn sign, or a friend suggested their agent, or you just walked into a real estate office and chatted with the available floor agent.

    In an era where all of the information we once so closely guarded is now available for anyone online 2/47 without having to talk to a Realtor, it’s easy to feel irrelevant. Our value hasn’t gone away, and I’d say our value has actually increased because of the incredible amount of data now available online. Where is the value in a Realtor?

    The modern value of a Realtor

    First: Making all of the data make sense
    We can make sense of all of that data and put it in a meaningful context in a way that makes it easy for a particular client to understand. For an agent that actively tours in their market and engages daily with buyers, sellers, lenders, appraisers, and other real estate professionals it’s so easy that we sometimes don’t realize how valuable it is to take a huge amount of data and distill it to the relevant, essential and important information. This isn’t meant to sound patronizing to home buyers and sellers. They aren’t babies who need to be gently spoon-fed an easy to digest puree of real estate information. But home buyers and sellers have jobs, lives, families, children, pets, travel plans and hobbies – and they can’t put all of those things on pause to buy or sell a home.

    Second: Real Estate will always be about People
    It’s about people buying and selling homes. Yes, square footage matters. Yes, location matters. Yes, bedrooms, bathrooms, school-districts and plenty of other data points factor into the decision. Research1 has shown that the greater number of data points involved, the worse our conscious minds are at making the decision. It’s the ability to trust your gut, and have someone that you trust – an expert – to cross-check that feeling by being able to turn and say “I can’t put my finger on it, but I really think I like this home. What do you think?” Moments like that are when real estate is more about the people involved than the home itself. While I might ask Siri where to help me hide a dead body (just for fun and games, I assure you), I can’t envision the day when people are comfortable asking her if they should buy this home or that home. There are too many intangibles for a computer program to ever capture the quirky, bizarre, hard-to-describe but important details in buying a home.

    Third: Websites only capture the easy data
    Beds, bath, Square Feet, Date of Construction, Schools, etc. Those are the easy fields to capture, display, sort, and generally manipulate. But what about those items that are highly subjective, periodic or otherwise hard to easily classify and assign a value to? What’s light and airy to you may be a cave to me. What about the house next to the high school field used for band practice late into the evenings – but only during certain months of the year? Can you imagine the number of data fields it would take to capture every possible aspect of a home throughout a year? And if you can, see point two above.

    Fourth: Negotiating and Navigating Escrow
    Ever gone white water rafting without a guide? If you have, and you’re still alive to tell the tale, then you are both insane and lucky. It’s common sense to hire a guide when you are negotiating and navigating wilderness that is unknown to you – particularly when your day job involves sitting in a cubicle and wearing stylish shoes. Plunging into the river called escrow without a Real Estate agent to smartly negotiate and navigate on your behalf is inviting disaster. Real estate is filled with wildly unpredictable animals, well-camouflaged dead-ends, and false mirages – the cost of a simple mistake can be far greater than it originally appears. Just like the wilderness!

    Realtors are more valuable when listing data is a commodity

    So if Realtors are more valuable when listing data becomes a commodity, why the concern with scraping?

    One: it makes it easy to misrepresent who the listing agent for a property is. If you are going to display my listing on your website (and depending on who you are, I might or might not be okay with that), at a minimum, I want credit as the listing agent. Not because I want to represent both sides of the transaction (double-popping/agent level dual agency) but because I worked hard to get that listing and my reputation online is incredibly valuable to my business.

    Two: Accuracy. If I had a dollar for every phone call I got from clients looking on Trulia, Redfin, or Zillow asking about listings that are advertised as available but really aren’t available, I’d have a Benjamin and a few extra Lincolns in my wallet. And these are from some of the big players that work hard at keeping their data up-to-date.

    Three: I’d prefer to make money from my hard work, thanks very much. Plenty of sites using scraped or syndicated data have business models that don’t rely at all on selling houses. Trulia, Zillow and even Realtor.com (and these aren’t even the scrapers) are in the advertising business, making money by selling advertisting on their sites regardless of if a particular home sells or not. They aren’t interested in selling homes, they are interested in generating page views and click-throughs. But to generate those page views, they need your listing data. Which they get without ever offering me or my broker a few dollars…

    The continuing evolution

    Listing data is on the internet, and it’s not going anywhere. How and where it is displayed, how it is protected (or not protected), and who controls it will continue to change and evolve. Realtor.com wants you to know they are obsessed with defeating the scrapers. But like I said, I think it’s a red herring and pretty far down on my list of concerns. What about you?

    • Benn Rosales

      April 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm

      Hi Russ! Benn here, so glad to see you – your point is well taken, but I’ll be honest, Matts points are also well taken. As he mentions, protecting copyrights as well as trademarks are important, but what I got out of this was something so much more – a Realtor brilliantly defining how powerful it is to be a Realtor in 2012 regardless of data hijacking, right?

      I’d go a step further however with his assertions of Realtor value proposition – I sort of get the feeling non-Realtors, namely a simple licensee can use R/T/Z or any number of sources to actually provide some semblance of representation in a neighborhood these days. It’s all out there for a well farmed licensee w/o the R the do what Matt so artfully describes as value. This service will in time get better as aggregators get better, and why can’t they use the new tools Zillow provides to disintermediate the associations right on out of the drivers seat. ahhhhhh Zillow CRM? Zillow IDX? etc…

      They don’t and aren’t a broker, they’re defining a new way. Matt’s points only makes this more evident.

      • Benn Rosales

        April 23, 2012 at 6:41 pm

        If it’s not the agenda, then they’re missing a huge opportunity – not that I support it, I’m just sayin.

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 10:32 pm

      Russ,

      As I mentioned at the beginning of my article, I’m not condoning scraping. As to your question about “should any 3rd party be allowed to use copyrighted material (raw materials) to start a for-profit business at the expense of the owner of those raw materials?”

      From the agent level perspective I’d say that to a degree, sites like Trulia, Zillow, and Realtor.com do exactly that. They are all in the business of selling advertising packages – primarily to real estate agents, and while Move.Com might profit from allowing Zillow to use their data, it doesn’t trickle down to an individual agent.

      That said, I also couldn’t tell you the intricacies of who owns the data about my listing once I enter it into the MLS. From a quick google of your name, it sounds like you have a fair amount of experience in this area and I’d love to hear more from your perspective.

      I’d also be really curious to hear your opinion and thoughts on IDX. When I display another agent’s listing on my website and a buyer contacts me, have I profited at the expense of the owner of that listing data (the listing agent)?

      Cheers,
      Matt

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      Russ,

      Isn’t Google’s entire business model predicated around indexing (scraping, to some degree) other people’s data, selling advertising around it and making a fortune? The value isn’t the data, in google’s case it is helping people find the data. And no, Google doesn’t represent other people’s data as belonging to them, but they’d be out of business without it.

      – Matt

  4. Roland Estrada

    April 23, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I’d like to bring up a possible scraping issue not of MLS data but of Realtor email addresses for spamming purposes. I’ll tell you why I think one or all three associations are at the core of Realtor spam.

    In 2007, I switched email providers from Earthlink to a .mac account. After a couple of months I thought I should update my association info – NAR, CAR and OCAR. Up to the point where I updated my email info with the associations, I had zero spam of any kind. Roughly two days after I updated my email info, I started getting real estate related spam. I was suspicious of course.

    I set up and alias address with Gmail and resubmitted that new email address to the three associations. Sure enough, within a couple of submitting the new email address I started getting real estate spam. All three associations deny selling our email addresses. Either someone on the inside is selling them or they are being scraped. It’s a pretty crappy situation when we can’t trust our associations to keep email info secure.

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 10:34 pm

      Roland,

      While I have nothing to base it on other than personal experience, I’d say that’s scraping and not your association selling your data. That said, I’ve never actually bothered to ask my association what our privacy policy is with regards to member data.

      But spam still sucks!

  5. Matt Thomson

    April 23, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    I think the biggest element here is that Realtor’s value has changed. That’s okay. The sad thing is few Realtors have changed with it, or understand or are willing to admit their value has changed.
    I’ve made a really nice living the past 4 years, while many former top producing agents in our community have left the business, redefining value.
    A community blog offering tons of information about the community folks are buying into. I have dozens of out of state clients…I do face time chat or send videos of homes to them, so they don’t have to keep flying out here and can see more than just what is online.
    We still have value, we just need to define what it is.

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 10:36 pm

      Matt,

      I totally agree with you! Our value has changed, and I’m okay with it.

      I’d be curious to hear how you define your value – unless, of course, that’s your secret recipe for success, in which case you should keep it in the vault 😉

      Cheers,
      Matt

      • Matt Thomson

        April 24, 2012 at 1:58 pm

        I promote my value as having extensive knowledge about the community.
        I know the real estate market #’s intently. I know the absorption rate and DOM of each price range. I know who the builders are of which homes.
        I have spent time getting to know administrators and personnel in each school, including the private schools. I engage in Chamber activities and attend a weekly Public Affairs forum.
        I know the City planner, the county commissioner, the superintendent of schools, the chief of police and the fire commissioner.
        There’s not many questions about our area that I can’t answer, from the schools and parks to where to get a hair cut and who to call to remodel your house.
        Finding homes is something I do, but something my clients can do just as well on my site or any number of other sites.
        Really truly knowing this community is something my buyers need and my sellers appreciate as I can market their home around the perks of the community as well as the home.

  6. Matt Cohen

    April 24, 2012 at 6:59 am

    Funny how it’s obvious that scraping is a problem for emails (for a commenter) but scraping of listings, which can result in the same harassment of consumers (especially when listing address is mashed up with a telephone directory) is a ‘red herring’.

  7. Frank LL0SA- broker FranklyRealty.com

    April 24, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Redfin? You sure? You lumped them in with the likes of Trulia and Zillow.

    While I agree that Zillow can have weeks or months old data that causes problems and confusion for the consumer, are you sure Redfin has the same issues? They have a direct IDX feed from the MLS and a kick ass site. Never heard of one complaint about them having outdated info.

    Frank
    broker
    FranklyRealty.com
    FranklyMLS.com

  8. Bryan

    May 14, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    First, I must correct a horribly silly mistake one commenter made: Copyright does NOT have to be defended to be retained. This is a very common belief that betrays total ignorance of intellectual property law. Trademark has to be actively defended, COPYRIGHT DOES NOT. Likewise, copyright does NOT cover information or methods. It covers the SPECIFIC PRESENTATION of the information. A "copyrighted" listing is not the number of beds, baths, square footage, acres, etc. It's not subject to copyright. It's how that information is displayed that falls under copyright. Photos, of course, do fall under copyright, even if they are in digital format.

    Second, when I have done housing searches purely for myself, I have resorted to crude scraping. I can then use the data amassed to pare down the selection based on criteria that are derived from the scrape but are too tedious to go through on a listing-by-listing basis (yes, the search tools on the sites are too crude and primitive for me).

    Then, once I've pared that down, what have I done? That is where the Realtor comes in. When it comes time to take a look at specific properties, I find an agent willing to represent me as a buyer. Any Realtor who viciously clings to listing data as if it were life-blood a secret that must be kept to stay in business is nobody I would trust to do business with in the 21st century. They provide ZERO added value by being listing gatekeepers. However, there is still a lot of added value a good Realtor can provide a prospective buyer without being a listing gatekeeper.

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Opinion Editorials

7 ways to carve out me time while working from home

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) It can be easy to forget about self-care when you’re working from home, but it’s critical for your mental health, and your work quality.

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Woman in hijab sitting on couch, working from home on a laptop

We are all familiar with the syndrome, getting caught up in work, chores, and taking care of others, and neglecting to take care of ourselves in the meantime. This has always been the case, but now, with more people working from home and a seemingly endless lineup of chores, thanks to the pandemic. There is simply so much to do.

The line is thinly drawn between personal and professional time already, with emails, cell phones, and devices relentlessly reaching out around the clock, pulling at us like zombie arms reaching up from the grave. Working from home makes this tendency to always be “on” worse, as living and working take place in such close proximity. We have to turn it off, though.

Our brains and bodies need down time, me-time, self-care. Carving out this time is one of the kindest and most important things you can do for yourself. If we can begin to honor ourselves like this, the outcome with not only our mental and physical health, but also our productivity at work, will be beneficial. When we make the time to do things we love, our body untenses, our mind’s gears slow down that constant grinding. Burnout behooves nobody.

Our work will also benefit. Healthier, happier, more well rested, and well treated minds and bodies can work wonders! Our immune systems also need this, and we need our immune systems to be at their peak performance this intense season.

I wanted to write this article, because I have such a struggle with this in my own life. I need to print it out and put it in my workspace. Last week, I posted something on my social media pages that so many people shared. It is clear we all need these reminders, so I am paying it forward here. The graphic was a quote from Devyn W.

“If you are reading this, release your shoulders away from your ears, unclench your jaw, and drop your tongue from the roof of your mouth.”

There now, isn’t that remarkable? It is a great first step. Let go of the tension in your body, and check out these ways to make yourself some healing me-time.

  1. Set aside strict no-work times. This could be any time of day, but set the times and adhere to them strictly. This may look like taking a full hour for lunch, not checking email after a certain hour, or committing to spending that time outdoors, reading, exercising, or enjoying the company of your loved ones. Make this a daily routine, because we need these boundaries. Every. Single. Day.
  2. Remember not to apologize to anyone for taking this me-time. Mentally and physically you need this, and everyone will be better off if you do. It is nothing to apologize for! Building these work-free hours into your daily schedule will feel more normal as time goes on. This giving of time and space to your joy, health, and even basic human needs is what should be the norm, not the other way around.
  3. Give yourself a device-free hour or two every day, especially before bedtime. The pinging, dinging, and blinging keeps us on edge. Restful sleep is one of the wonderful ways our bodies and brains heal, and putting devices away before bedtime is one of the quick tips for getting better sleep.
  4. Of course, make time for the things you absolutely love. If this is a hot bath, getting a massage, reading books, working out, cooking or eating an extravagant meal, or talking and laughing with a loved one, you have to find a way to get this serotonin boost!
  5. Use the sunshine shortcut. It isn’t a cure-all, but sunlight and Vitamin D are mood boosters. At least when it’s not 107 degrees, like in a Texas summer. But as a general rule, taking in at least a good 10-15 minutes of that sweet, sweet Vitamin D provided by the sun is good for us.
  6. Spend time with animals! Walk your dog, shake that feathery thing at your cat, or snuggle either one. Whatever animals make you smile, spend time with them. If you don’t have pets of your own, you could volunteer to walk them at a local shelter or even watch a cute animal video online. They are shown to reduce stress. Best case scenario is in person if you are able, but thankfully the internet is bursting with adorable animal videos, as a backup.
  7. Give in to a bit of planning or daydreaming about a big future trip. Spending time looking at all the places you will go in the future and even plotting out an itinerary are usually excellent mood-boosters. It’s a bit different in 2020, as most of us aren’t sure when we will be able to go, but even deciding where you want to go when we are free to travel again can put a positive spin on things.

I hope we can all improve our lives while working from home by making time for regenerating, healing, and having fun! Gotta run—the sun is out, and my dog is begging for a walk.

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Opinion Editorials

Why robots freak us out, and what it means for the future of AI

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Robots and humans have a long way to go before the social divide disappears, but research is giving us insight on how to cross the uncanny valley.

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Close of R2D2 toy, an example of robots that we root for, but why?

We hate robots. Ok, wait, back up. We at least think they are more evil than good. Try it yourself – “are robots” in Google nets you evil before good. Megatron has higher SEO than Optimus Prime, and it’s not just because he’s so much cooler. It cuz he evil, cuz. It do be like that.

It’s not even a compliment to call someone robotic; society connotes this to emotionless preprogrammed shells of hideous nothing, empty clankbags that walk and talk and not much else. So, me at a party. Or if you’re a nerd, you’re a robot. (Me at a party once again.)

Let’s start by assuming robots as human-like bipedal machines that are designed with some amount of artificial intelligence, generally designed to fulfill a job to free up humanity from drudgery. All sounds good so far. So why do they creep us out?

There’s a litany of reasons why, best summed up with the concept of the uncanny valley, first coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori (Wow he’s still alive! The robots have not yet won) in 1970. Essentially, we know what a human is and how it looks and behaves against the greater backdrop of life and physics. When this is translated to a synthetic being, we are ok with making a robot look and act like us to a point, where we then notice all the irregularities and differences.

Most of these are minor – unnaturally smooth or rigid movements, light not scattering properly on a surface, eyes that don’t sync up quite right when they blink, and several other tiny details. Lots of theories take over at this point about why this creeps us out. But a blanket way to think about it is that our expectation doesn’t match what we are seeing; the reality we’re presented with is off just enough and this makes us uncomfortable .

Ever stream a show and the audio is a half second off? Makes you really annoyed. Magnify that feeling by a thousand and you’re smack in the middle of the uncanny valley. It’s that unnerving. One possible term for this is abjection, which is what happens the moment before we begin to fear something. Our minds – sensing incompatibility with robots – know this is something else, something other , and faced with no way to categorize this, we crash.

This is why they make good villains in movies – something we don’t understand and given free will and autonomy, potentially imbued with the bias of a creator or capable of forming terrifying conclusions all on its own (humans are a virus). But they also make good heroes, especially if they are cute or funny. Who doesn’t love C3PO? That surprise that they are good delights us. Build in enough appeal to a robot, and we root for them and feel empathy when they are faced with hardships. Do robots dream of electric sheep? Do robots have binary souls? Bits and zeros and ones?

Professor Jaime Banks (Texas Tech University’s College of Media & Communication) spends a lot of time thinking about how we perceive robots. It’s a complex and multifaceted topic that covers anthropomorphism, artificial intelligence, robot roles within society, trust, inherently measuring virtue versus evil, preconceived notions from entertainment, and numerous topics that cover human-robot interactions.

The world is approaching a future where robots may become commonplace; there are already robot bears in Japan working in the healthcare field. Dressing them up with cute faces and smiles may help, but one jerky movement later and we’ve dropped all suspension.

At some point, we have to make peace with the idea that they will be all over the place. Skynet, GLaDOS in Portal, the trope of your evil twin being a robot that your significant will have to shoot in the middle of your fight, that episode of Futurama where everything was a robot and they rose up against their human masters with wargod washing machines and killer greeting cards, the other Futurama episode where they go to a planet full of human hating murderous robots… We’ve all got some good reasons to fear robots and their coded minds.

But as technology advances, it makes sense to have robots take over menial tasks, perform duties for the needy and sick, and otherwise benefit humanity at large. And so the question we face is how to build that relationship now to help us in the future.

There’s a fine line between making them too humanlike versus too mechanical. Pixar solved the issue of unnerving humanoids in their movies by designing them stylistically – we know they are human and accept that the figure would look odd in real life. We can do the same with robots – enough familiarity to develop an appeal, but not enough to erase the divide between humanity and robot. It may just be a question of time and new generations growing up with robots becoming fixtures of everyday life. I’m down for cyborgs too.

Fearing them might not even be bad, as Banks points out: “…a certain amount of fear can be a useful thing. Fear can make us think critically and carefully and be thoughtful about our interactions, and that would likely help us productively engage a world where robots are key players.”

Also, check out Robot Carnival if you get the chance – specifically the Presence episode of the anthology.

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Opinion Editorials

4 simple tips to ease friction with your boss while working remotely

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Find it challenging to get along with your boss while working from home? Here are a few things you can try to ease the tension.

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Woman stressed over laptop in remote work.

Most people probably feel like their relationship with their boss is fine. If you’re encountering friction with your boss for any reason, though, remote work will often exacerbate it—this is one instance where distance doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder. Here are a few ways to remove some of that friction without adding to your boss’ overflowing plate.

According to CNN, determining the problem that exists between you and your boss should be your first step. There’s one caveat to consider, however: Your boss’ boundaries. Problem-solving on your own time is fine, but demanding more of your boss’ time—especially when you’re supposed to be working—may compound the issue.

An easy way around this is a low-impact communique—e.g., an email—sent at the beginning or end of the workday. Since that’s a more passive communication style that takes only a minute or two out of your day, it’s less likely to frustrate your boss further.

If ironing out the issue isn’t your prerogative for now, examining your boss’ parameters for success is another place to start. Does your boss prefer to receive multiple updates throughout the day, or do they want one summative report each morning? Do you respect your boss’ preferred communication styles? These are important questions to ask during remote work. If you find yourself reaching out more than necessary, for example, it may be time to cut back.

It can also be difficult to satiate your boss if you don’t know their expectations. If you’re able to speak to them about the expectations regarding a project or task, do it; clarifying the parameters around your work will always help both of you. It is worth noting that some supervisors may expect that you know your way around some types of responsibilities, though, so err on the side of complementing that knowledge rather than asking for comprehensive instructions.

Finally, keep in mind that some bosses simply don’t communicate the same way you do. I’ve personally been blessed with a bevy of nurturing, enthusiastic supervisors, but we’ve all had superiors who refuse to acknowledge our successes and instead focus on our failures. That can be a really tough mentality to work with during remote periods, but knowing that they have a specific communication style that hampers their sociability can help dampen the effects.

As always, communication is key—even if that means doing it a little bit less than you’d like.

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