When Robots Get Hurt, We Feel It Too

Photo: Courtesy Jake Curtis/Aldebaran.
If you see a robot in pain or in danger, do you commiserate with its situation on a personal level? Or do you just dismiss it as an unfeeling, overblown toaster? These are questions that researchers at Toyohashi University of Technology and Kyoto University sought to answer in a new study.

Specifically, they wanted to find out if the human brain reacts to robots in empathic situations the same way it does to humans in those situations. The study results show that yes, there is neurophysiological evidence that humans empathize with robots when we perceive they're in pain. (Now I don't feel so crazy for wincing at Boston Dynamics' Spot robot when one of its handlers kicked it in a recent video.)

In the study, the researchers showed 15 healthy adults images of human and robotic hands in either painful (a pair of scissors about to cut a finger) or non-painful situations. Using electroencephalography (EEG), the researchers measured the participants' brain responses. Perceived pain generally elicits a strong empathetic reaction in humans, and the researchers found that the brain's top-down empathetic reaction for perceived pain toward humanoid robots was similar to that towards humans in the same situation.

Empathy is one of the most important abilities for appropriate social communication, the authors write in the study. Thus, understanding how we interact with robots socially is important for their future development. The results of this study should help designers make robots that we perceive as friendly — and that garner our sympathy.

Now, can we please stop with all this robot-kicking? It's hurting us, too.

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