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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.
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.