Neuroscience Explores Why Humans Feel Empathy for Robots
If, while watching WALL-E, your heart broke just a little bit when you saw the title character desperately travel across outer space in search of true love, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Sure, WALL-E is a robot. But its cute, anthropomorphized look and all too human desire to end its loneliness made us subconsciously forget that it is not human.
The ability to forget that key point wasn’t just a matter of clever storytelling. New research shows that, at least in a small sample of people tested, the same neural patterns that occur when we feel empathy for a human onscreen are present in our brains when we see a robot onscreen…
The results suggest that the reason we feel empathy for robots like WALL-E is that, when we see them treated a certain manner, it triggers the same sort of neural activity as seeing a human treated that way. In a sense, our mind interprets the robot to be human-like in a way that it doesn’t for, say, a rock. On the other hand, one possible explanation for why, despite this pattern, they still arouse less empathy than humans when being treated harshly is that we interpret them as something slightly less than human—something more like a pet.
Of course, this explanation comes with an important caveat: correlation vs. causation. We don’t know for sure that these neurological patterns cause empathy, per se, just that they reliably occur at the same time. (Further, we can’t say for sure that this effect is unique to robots—stuffed animals and dolls might engender the same feelings of empathy.)…
“One goal of current robotics research is to develop robotic companions that establish a long-term relationship with a human user, because robot companions can be useful and beneficial tools. They could assist elderly people in daily tasks and enable them to live longer autonomously in their homes, help disabled people in their environments, or keep patients engaged during the rehabilitation process,” Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, the study’s lead author, said in a press statement. “A common problem is that a new technology is exciting at the beginning, but this effect wears off especially when it comes to tasks like boring and repetitive exercise in rehabilitation. The development and implementation of uniquely humanlike abilities in robots like theory of mind, emotion and empathy is considered to have the potential to solve this dilemma.”
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