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Human Hearts Bleed for Abused Robots

People watching a robot being beaten felt similar emotions as when they watched a human apparently being abused. Sophie Bushwick reports

Can your heart bleed for a robot? In two experiments, people reacted to videos where a human appeared to either torture or coddle one of three subjects: another human wearing green, a small green robot, or an inanimate green box. And viewers had a definite emotional response to the treatment of the robot. The work will be presented at the International Communication Association's annual conference.

[Astrid M. Rosenthal-von der Pütten et al., Investigations on Empathy Towards Humans and Robots Using Psychophysiological Measures and fMRI, at conference in London June 17-21. Related publication: An Experimental Study on Emotional Reactions Towards a Robot]

Forty volunteers watched clips of the robot, which reacted to abuse with upset crying and choking noises and to affection with happy purring and babbling sounds. Viewers became physically agitated watching the abusive video, and afterwards they reported a negative emotional response.

In the second experiment 14 people watched the videos while undergoing a functional MRI brain scan. The scans revealed similar responses when either the robot or the human received affection. But the human's apparent abuse caused more concern than the robot's.

Understanding our emotional response to robots may help inform the development of robotic assistants. In the meantime, be nice to your Roomba.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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