Study: Humans Feel Bad for an Abused Robot

Study found 'no differences’ between human and robot stimuli.

C3PO, the droll droid of Star Wars fame, is shown with the character Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, in this undated handout photo. (Copyright 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All rights reserved/AP Photo)

C-3PO, the droll droid of Star Wars fame, is shown with the character Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill.

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If you shed a tear when Han Solo berated C-3PO or got emotional when WALL-E wanders Earth alone for half of his movie, you're not alone: A new study suggests that humans feel empathy for robots.

When shown videos of a man attacking a woman and a man attacking a dinosaur-shaped robot that makes noises, study participants felt "negative epathetic concern" for both victims, and an fMRI screening – which measures brain activity – showed that participants' brains showed similar neural patterns during both videos, but the reaction was stronger in response to the woman being abused. When a third video – of an inanimate cube being attacked – was shown, participants' brains did not show any reaction.

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Similarly, when the woman and dinosaur were treated nicely, study participants' brains showed "similar neural activation patterns" in both cases, meaning humans might feel emotions toward robots.

"When you compare human stimuli to robot stimuli, there's no differences for the affectionate video," says Astrid Rosenthal-von der Putten, a researcher at Germany's University of Duisburg Essen and lead author of the study. "We had expected we'd see more reaction for the human stimuli, but this suggests our brains react similarly to both."

The fMRI screening shows how humans reacted during and immediately following the videos; the team isn't sure if there are more lasting effects with regard to one or the other. The team presented its research at the International Communication Association conference in London Tuesday.


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"We have to do more research about whether people establish bonds to robots or artificial beings," Rosenthal-von der Putten says.

It's also unclear whether humans would have a similar effect had the robot been, say, vacuum cleaner or R2D2 shaped, rather than animal-shaped.

Rosenthal-von der Putten says the team selected a robot that had some sort of reaction to abuse – in this case, the screaming noises and struggling – but choosing a humanoid robot proved too costly. The team is planning future studies in which a human and humanoid robot are verbally abused to see if humans have a similar reaction.

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"We're going to go more in the direction of trying social pain and verbal abuse of robots to see if the notion of empathy is there, but that way, we can get rid of the financial risk of damaging expensive research robots," she says.

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