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These Bots Are Ready To Give You The Business

Researchers are teaching a computer to negotiate with humans in the hopes of someday using it as a training tool for everything from business to diplomacy.

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Researchers at the University of Southern California teamed up with the business school there to build a program that teaches business school students how to...do business.

Here’s how it works: a person sits down in front of a giant computer screen and business-fights a virtual human — an intelligent avatar — for imaginary stuff.

The game is Antique Wars — the human player wants some items, and the computer wants some items, and they argue back and forth over who gets what until an agreement is reached. It’s like a divorce settlement, but more fun!

Participants are given a sheet of paper that tells them which items to go after, and which to leave on the table. The opponent might be computer-generated, but the stakes are legit. “We pay them real money,” Jonathan Gratch, the USC researcher who heads the project, told BuzzFeed News.

Here’s what it looks like:

All kinds of people — MBAs, diplomats, lawyers — study the art of negotiation. They mostly learn in classroom settings, practicing things like bluffing, manipulation and other tactics. (This might sound familiar to anyone who has watched that episode of 30 Rock where Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon fight over chair height and who speaks first.)

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Gratch says (normal) people often feel — understandably! — weird about using tactics like feigned anger or lying in a negotiation with another person. In a way, the point of his program is to desensitize students to that natural ~human~ discomfort by letting then practice such methods on a virtual human first.

“People find it awkward if someone is coming at them with a tough negotiation tactic,” Gratch explained. “They want to be collaborative and concede. A lot of negotiation is learning to stand up for your interests, which requires you to be confrontational.”

Just because the entity with which you’re negotiating isn’t real, doesn’t mean the battle’s easy. The whole point of a negotiation is to figure out what your opponent wants, and then not give it to them or, at the very least, to use your knowledge of your opponent to get what you want.

By observing a human opponent, Gratch’s bot will try and do just that. “We’re tracking facial expressions, annotating dialogue — even things like ‘um’ and ‘uh’,” says Gratch. The bot then analyzes that data to determine which items you want, and barters and bluffs its way to a deal.

Watch as the virtual human reacts to the moves the human player is making, and feel the creep:

Gratch’s virtual humans can be calibrated to be more or less truthful. They can even be programmed to lie outright, saying they don’t want an item they actually do want in order to make it appear less valuable to an opponent. They can also bluff, using human body language (crossed arms, furrowed brow) to intimate frustration, disinterest or disgust.

“If you're practicing negotiation. you want to start with a straightforward honest person,” said Gratch. “Then you want to ratchet up the difficulty by making them more Machiavellian.”

Right now, the virtual negotiators are still in development, so they’re only semi-autonomous — someone behind the scenes is pressing buttons, telling them what to do. (Gratch calls this a “Wizard of Oz” system.) But in about two years, the bots should be ready to work in classrooms, online and off, and to negotiate on their own.

If you're curious to learn who won negotiation featured above, you can watch the whole thing here:

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Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O'Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

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