People Feel Empathy for Robots in “Pain”

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Human emotions aren’t always rational. This is on full view in a new study in the journal Scientific Reports, which finds that people feel empathetic towards seeing a robot in "pain." Because … robots can’t feel pain. They’re machines. (No matter how humanoid they are.)

The study examined the brain activity of 15 volunteers who looked at pictures of either humans or robots in painful situations, like having their fingers cut by a knife. The participants were surveyed about their reactions to the images, and while most people logically said the robot couldn’t feel the pain of having its finger cut, on a subconscious level, it appears that didn’t compute.

Image Credit: Suzuki et al., Scientific Reports (2015)

The researchers, from Kyoto University and Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan and Freie Universitaet Berlin, found that people felt empathetic towards the painful experience regardless of whether the hand belonged to a robot or a human.

However, they did feel more empathetic toward the humans than the robots. Though their automatic cognitive responses showed similar amounts of empathy toward the robot and the human images, the “top-down” cognitive response—which generally kicks in after that initial, automatic pang of empathy—was not as strong for the ‘bots. 

The robot hand in question looked a lot like a human hand, so it remains to be seen if a less biological-looking ‘bot would have the same impact. 

[h/t: Slate]