In some tucked-away part of yourself, do you feel like an object in your life — maybe a stuffed animal from your childhood or a treasured book — is alive?
Does it feel alive enough that the thought of it getting kicked across a room upsets you, beyond the physical damage that might be done to it?
I have many such objects in my life, and according to studies that have looked at human beings’ empathetic reactions to robots, feeling an emotional response to inanimate objects’ getting “hurt” is relatively normal. What’s more, loving them sets off similar parts of the brain that are triggered when we show affection for other humans.
In two connected studies, scientists at the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany looked at how humans reacted to a dinosaur-like robot called Pleo who was being petted and loved, and then hurt (see the video below). In the first study, they asked participants how they felt after watching videos of the affection or abuse — and most participants reported that they felt distressed when Pleo was being shaken.
In the second experiment, the participants were hooked up to an functional MRI, which looked at which areas of the brain lit up when they saw a human, a robot or an inanimate object being abused. Affection toward the robot and the human caused the empathetic areas of the brain’s limbic system to light up. A similar thing happened when the robot and the human were hurt, though the areas of empathy did show differences between the human and robot — there was more emotional distress and “negative empathetic concern for the human in the abuse condition,” according to the study.
A study published in Scientific Reports found similar results: When a robot hand and a human hand were photographed in positions where it looked as if they were about to be cut with knife, brain scans showed empathy from the human subjects for both, although the reaction was tempered with the logical knowledge that a robot can’t be hurt in the same way a human can. “These results suggest that we empathize with humanoid robots in late top-down processing similarly to human others. However, the beginning of the top-down process of empathy is weaker for robots than for humans,” the researchers wrote.
So the humans being tested were distressed to see the robots hurt, but not as distressed as when they saw a human being hurt — though when it came to affection, both gave people the warm fuzzies. (Not a scientific term, but my own interpretation.)
This research is important in understanding how to build robots that will work best with humans beings in different capacities, especially before they enter our homes. These empathetic relationships with robots could have a significant upside: When it comes to boring, repetitive tasks, robotic companions could become a boon, especially when you consider our ability to bond with them. In a long-term study that looked at how a small group of elderly people interacted with a robot companion, some of the senior citizens spoke to, smiled and otherwise bonded with the robot.
“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,” Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, lead author of the studies, said in a statement.
Whatever you feel about robots as adjunct human beings, they are going to be part of our lives in the near future, doing the things we no longer want to do, or maybe can’t do. And if they’re designed well, we will probably find that we care for them — we just can’t help it.
I know I’ll be plenty susceptible to robot affections when I interact with them eventually, since I apologize to my laptop when I knock it to the floor, and regularly talk to my car — and those machines aren’t even designed to elicit an empathetic response!