Columbia University engineers create a robot that shows basic empathy

Engineers at Columbia University have created a robot that can learn to visually predict how it's partner robot will behave. The engineers say that the robot has displayed a glimmer of empathy. The breakthrough could help robots get along with other robots and humans more intuitively in the future. The robot learned to predict its partner robot's future actions and goals based on a few initial video frames.

Predicting what other people nearby will do is something that comes naturally to humans, and it makes it easier for us to live and work together. Predicting future movements is a significant challenge for robots and is something that robots have been inept at. Columbia Engineering researchers have been part of a broader effort to help robots understand and anticipate the goals of other robots using visual observations.

The researchers built a robot and placed it in a playpen roughly 3 feet by 2 feet in size. The robot was programmed to seek out and move towards any green circle it could see. The catch was that sometimes the robot could see a green circle using its camera and move directly towards it, but other times the green circle would be blocked by a tall cardboard box. In those instances, the robot would move towards a different green circle or wouldn't move at all.

The second robot observed his partner moving for about two hours, and the observing robot began to anticipate its partners goal and path. The robot observer was eventually able to predict the partner robot's path 98 out of 100 times across varying situations without being told explicitly about the visibility handicap of the partner robot. The observer robot could empathize with its partner and understand without being guided if its partner could see the green circle or not from its vantage point, showing a primitive form of empathy.

Researchers admit that the robot's empathy is much more simple than the behaviors and goals of humans. However, they believe this could be the start of giving robots the tool known by cognitive scientists as the "Theory of Mind."