When a human sees the plight of another, we’re capable of empathy, and it is a powerful thing. Many science fiction movies and books have asked whether humans can have empathy towards robots, especially as they advance and become more like living beings and less like machines. The answer to this is yes, according to a study conducted by scientists at the University of Duisburg.
The scientists presented 40 participants with videos of a small robot, shaped like a dinosaur, in two different kinds of situations: one in which it was presented with affection, and another in which it was violently handled. Using physiological responses, the scientists analyzed the reactions the participants had to how the dinosaur was treated, which was that humans had a strong response.
Following up on this was the use of functional MRIs to monitor the effects of watching both violence and affection towards robots and towards humans. According to the study, the participants’ brains had similar patterns when presented with violence and care towards a robot as it did when presented with the same towards a human.
One of the scientists, Rosenthal-von der Putten, discussed the eventual goal of developing companion robots that a human would form a relationship with, aiding individuals who need it with assistance and, for example, offering more independence to the elderly. Understanding how humans react emotionally to robots is essential to this goal.
He said, “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.”