Star Wars Was Wrong, Science Says Humans Do Feel Empathy for Robots

Wednesday, 04 November 2015 - 6:17PM
Wednesday, 04 November 2015 - 6:17PM
Star Wars Was Wrong, Science Says Humans Do Feel Empathy for Robots
An interesting aspect of the Star Wars saga is the way in which the movies' various human and alien characters react to the sight of a droid. In the vast majority of cases, droids are discriminated against, called names, and generally treated as being unworthy of anything other than carrying out a service. In fact, only a handful of characters ever really acknowledge droids for everything they're worth, Luke Skywalker's bond with R2-D2 being a classic example.

While this may seem irrelevant to our present day lives, it is in fact an issue that we will have to address in the very near future. Are advanced A.I's going to be classed as beings with rights or are they just objects? That's not for me to say, but a new study has found that humans may have more empathy for robots than our favorite Sci-Fi franchise might suggest.

Opening quote
"We have a tendency to anthropomorphise all sorts of things, and robots especially," Kate Darling of MIT Media Lab told WIRED. "We're primed by science fiction and pop culture to view robots as social actors, and we're also biologically hardwired to subconsciously respond to the physical movement of a robot as if to a living thing."
Closing quote

A group from Toyohashi and Kyoto Universities found that humans are able to empathise with a humanoid robot in situations they perceive to be painful. The researchers monitored the brain activity of 15 humans as they watched images of robot and human hands in potentially painful situations, such as being cut by a knife or scissors.



The results showed that humans had a similarly empathetic reaction to the robot hand's peril as to the one they had when watching the human hand. But does this mean that we're all just a bunch of softies? Well, according to the research, not quite. According to the paper, it's the fact that the robot hand was roughly humanoid in shape that might be a big driver behind the test subjects' reaction.

Opening quote
Humans can attribute humanity to robots and feel their pain because the basic shape of the robot hand in the present study was the same as that of the human hand.
Closing quote

Such studies as this are vital to the development of effective robotics. In order for humanity to accept robots into our everyday lives, it's important that we can relate to them and not simply view them as objects. This study begins to prove that a humanoid shape could be crucial to that acceptance, but further research will be needed before it can be considered conclusive evidence. Recognizing this, the same Japanese researchers are preparing to conduct a study that will replace the humanoid robot hand for less conventional hands, such as those with claws or no fingers at all. Should humans have a similarly empathetic reaction to those situations, it could mean that there's hope for obscure looking droids everywhere. We're looking at you BB-8.
Science
NASA

Load Comments