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Study Investigates Whether Soldiers' Attachment to Robots Affects Mission Outcomes

Sep 20, 2013 04:50 PM EDT
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As robots' role on the battlefield continues to increase, so do soldiers' attachment to them, according to new research.

University of Washington researcher Julie Carpenter wanted to know what kind of relationships soldiers develop with the machines that so often save their lives and if such attachments ever interfered with mission outcome.

In all, Carpenter interviewed 23 explosive ordnance personnel from every branch of the military. Trained to defuse chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons as well as roadside bombs, these troops often rely on robots to detect, inspect and disarm explosives. Advance scouting and reconnaissance are also performed using robots.

During the course of her interviews, Carpenter found that troops' relationships with robots evolved with their technology, and that while soldiers denied emotion ever affected performance, they admitted feeling a range of emotions when their field robot was destroyed, including anger and sadness.

"They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool, but then they would add 'poor little guy,' or they'd say they had a funeral for it," Carpenter said in a statement.

Robots often became an extension of one's self, the soldiers told Carpenter, with some saying they knew who was controlling it based on how it moved. In some cases soldiers even reported feeling as though the robots' technical or mechanical limitations reflected badly on them as a person.

Anthropomorphization was common, too, with soldiers assigning genders and human attributes to the robot. Naming the robot after a celebrity or current wife (though never an ex) was considered common practice.

"They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet," Carpenter said.

None of the robots in these cases resemble anything like a human or animal; however, the military is currently working to change that in the hopes of developing more agile machines. Carpenter wonders if an unintended consequence of doing so could be even greater levels of attachment.

"You don't want someone to hesitate using one of these robots if they have feelings toward the robot that goes beyond a tool," she said. "If you feel emotionally attached to something, it will affect your decision-making."

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