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In Love With Our Robots? Two New Studies Reveal Humans Feel Empathy For The Machines

Apr 23, 2013 11:29 AM EDT

Humans hate to watch robots suffer, say researchers from the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany.

Whether Star Wars, Furbies or something more innate is to blame is not clear. However, when scientists Astrid Rosenthal-von der Putten, Nicole Kramer and Matthias Brand showed 40 participants a video of a small dinosaur-shaped robot treated either affectionately or violently, the researchers said people reported feeling happier and more positive in the case of the former and more negative in regards to the latter.

The group of scientists followed this study with a second, which was conducted in collaboration of the Erwin L. Hahn Institute for Magnet Resonance Imaging.

During this study, 14 participants were presented videos showing a human, a robot and an inanimate object again either treated affectionately or violently. Using functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers scanned each viewer’s brain. Sure enough, when the robot and human were shown love, similar neural activation patterns in the limbic system were emitted.

However, while the participants’ brains appeared to experience empathy for the robots, they did so to a lesser degree than when a human was shown in an abusive condition.

Knowing this, the researchers argue, is key to a more robot-dominated future.

“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,” Rosenthal-von der Putten said in a press release. “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.”

The problem, she said, arises when the thrill of the new technology wears off and people are left with what is ultimately a machine.

“The development and implementation of uniquely humanlike abilities like theory of mind, emotion and empathy is considered to have the potential to solve this dilemma.”

The researchers will present their findings at the 63rd Annual International Communication Association Conference taking place in London this June.

To see the video used during the experiment, click here.

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