Empathizing With Robots

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Although some theorize that they could one day take over the world, one group of scientists was curious about whether humans are capable of feeling empathy for our electronic companions. The team will be presenting their findings at the 63rd Annual International Communication Association (ICA) conference in London.

During the study, 40 participants watched videos of a small dinosaur-shaped robot that was treated in either an affectionate or a violent manner while the researchers measured their level of physiological arousal. They also asked the participants about their emotional state directly after the videos. The team reported that participants said they felt more negative watching the robot being abused and showed higher physiological arousal during the negative video.

A second study performed by the team used functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) to look for potential brain correlations of human-robot interaction in contrast to human-human interaction. For this study, 14 participants were shown videos depicting a human, a robot and an inanimate object, all being treated in either an affectionate or violent manner. Their findings were consistent with those of the first study, finding that humans can in fact feel empathy for our robotic counterparts.

“One goal of current robotics research is to develop robotic companions that establish a long-term relationship with a human user, because robot companions can be useful and beneficial tools. They could assist elderly people in daily tasks and enable them to live longer autonomously in their homes, help disabled people in their environments, or keep patients engaged during the rehabilitation process,” said Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten of the University of Duisburg Essen.

“A common problem is that a new technology is exciting at the beginning, but this effect wears off especially when it comes to tasks like boring and repetitive exercise in rehabilitation. The development and implementation of uniquely humanlike abilities in robots like theory of mind, emotion and empathy is considered to have the potential to solve this dilemma.”

Those feelings of sympathy may not help when learning about some research being done at Boston Dynamics. Scientists are building an anthropomorphic humanoid robot to test chemical protection clothing for humans, and even future robots. This robot, Petman, can help test protective gear when it is subjected to various chemical warfare agents, such as nerve gas. It is designed to put natural stresses on a suit’s materials to find its design flaws, which could help determine if rips could form or stresses in seems could endanger a real human from toxic elements.

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