Study: People Empathize With Robots

Participants in a German study did not react well to videos depicting robot torture.
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Jedimentat44/Flickr

PROBLEM: We've invented robots that can explore Mars, win at Jeopardy, and prevent birds from taking down planes. One day, we may even succeed in creating a robot that can not only serve us, but also love us. But will humans ever be able to respond in kind?

METHODOLOGY: At the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany, researchers made short films depicting robot-human interaction. Half showed a faceless person making nice to a dinosaur robot, the other half depicted scenes of robot torture, in which it was choked, beaten up, sealed in a plastic bag, and dropped. They then showed the videos to 40 subjects and measured their emotional reactions using a skin conductance monitor.

robottorture.jpgScenes of robot torture

In a second experiment, those scenes of affection and torture were repeated not just with the robot, but also with a human woman, and, as a control, a cardboard box. Aside from the different subjects, the experiment's designers attempted to keep the videos as similar as possible: for example, "the robot, the human, and the box were all strangled using the same yellow rope or the same plastic bag." In this case, 14 participants watched the videos from within an fMRI scanner.

RESULTS: In the first experiment, the participants reported more feelings of negativity on a standard scale of emotional affect after watching the robot being tortured, and they had a higher physiological reaction -- they were sweatier -- to the torture scenes than to the friendly scenes. The friendly videos, however, didn't lead to any increases in positive feelings.

In the second experiment, participants did report more positive feelings after watching the friendly human-on-robot scene. And, just like in the first experiment, they felt significantly more negative after watching violence aimed at the robots, though not as bad as they felt after seeing the woman tortured. Overall, activity in the frontal lobe and limbic areas of the participants' brains -- associated with empathy -- looked similar during the robot and human videos, suggesting that they had similar emotional reactions to both. Those same brain areas, though, were also activated during the box scenes. The participants' brain activity also indicated that during the torture scenes, specifically, they felt most empathetic concern for the humans.

IMPLICATIONS: The participants did appear to experience some empathy toward the robots, but they felt more strongly toward humans (and were pretty empathetic toward boxes, too). It could just be that we react strongly to any depiction of violence, which would explain why in the first experiment, participants were affected the robot being tortured but not by it being treated nicely.

So we seem to have our priorities in order -- humans first -- which is probably good. A next step might be to determine whether different types of robots (perhaps, those made to look like humans) can further tug our heart strings. If we learned anything from my Furby, it's that some robots can really test a person's empathetic limits. I ended up removing his batteries after less than a week, going past robot torture to straight-up robot murder. And I sleep fine at night.


"Investigation on Empathy Towards Humans and Robots Using Psychophysiological Measures and fMRI" will be presented at the 63rd Annual International Communication Association Conference.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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