New Study Shows Humans Feel Empathy for Robots

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The humans on the television show Battlestar Galactica experience conflicting feelings when dealing with the humanoid Cylons. While some find it easy to torture the machines even though they resemble humans, many cringe at the thought of terrorizing the Cylons. It turns out the writers got this right—humans empathize with robots as much as they empathize with other people.

Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, from the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany, began thinking about how humans relate to robots after a discussion about a YouTube video where people destroy a dinosaur robot. While she watched the video she experienced conflicting emotions: The video amused her, but she also felt bad for the dinosaur. She wondered if other people felt this way, too—and decided to do some research to find out.

She and her colleagues conducted two studies. In the first, 40 participants watched videos where a person either acts affectionately to a robot that looks like baby camarasaurus or attacks it. When the person kicked, strangled, punched, or dropped the robot, it cried, choked, or coughed. The researchers monitored the subjects as they watched the videos with a physiological monitoring device, which basically tracks how much someone sweats. The more stressed out we are, the more we sweat. The participants also answered questions about how they felt when they watched the person "hurt" the robot. The subjects sweated more and reported feeling badly about the camarasaurus’ plight.

In the second study, the researchers asked people to watch videos of a robot dinosaur and humans while an fMRI machine imaged the subjects’ brains to see how they processed it. The videos featured a woman or a robot in a positive situation—being stroked or tickled—or a negative one—being beaten and choked. The fMRI scans showed that when people watched robots and humans being abused the brain acted the same, which leads them to conclude that people feel empathy for robots.

“[W]e did not find large differences in brain activation when comparing the human and robot stimuli. Even though we assumed that the robot stimuli would trigger emotional processing, we expected these processes to be considerably weaker than for human stimuli. It seems that both stimuli undergo the same emotional processing,” writes Rosenthal-von der Pütten.

She will present her findings at the International Communication Association Conference in London this June.