Why we have an emotional connection to robots | Kate Darling

Why we have an emotional connection to robots | Kate Darling


Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Krystian Aparta There was a day, about 10 years ago, when I asked a friend to hold
a baby dinosaur robot upside down. It was this toy called a Pleo
that I had ordered, and I was really excited about it
because I’ve always loved robots. And this one has really cool
technical features. It had motors and touch sensors and it had an infrared camera. And one of the things it had
was a tilt sensor, so it knew what direction it was facing. And when you held it upside down, it would start to cry. And I thought this was super cool,
so I was showing it off to my friend, and I said, “Oh, hold it up by the tail.
See what it does.” So we’re watching
the theatrics of this robot struggle and cry out. And after a few seconds, it starts to bother me a little, and I said, “OK, that’s enough now. Let’s put him back down.” And then I pet the robot
to make it stop crying. And that was kind of
a weird experience for me. For one thing, I wasn’t the most
maternal person at the time. Although since then I’ve become
a mother, nine months ago, and I’ve learned that babies also squirm
when you hold them upside down. (Laughter) But my response to this robot
was also interesting because I knew exactly
how this machine worked, and yet I still felt
compelled to be kind to it. And that observation sparked a curiosity that I’ve spent the past decade pursuing. Why did I comfort this robot? And one of the things I discovered
was that my treatment of this machine was more than just an awkward moment
in my living room, that in a world where we’re increasingly
integrating robots into our lives, an instinct like that
might actually have consequences, because the first thing that I discovered
is that it’s not just me. In 2007, the Washington Post
reported that the United States military was testing this robot
that defused land mines. And the way it worked
was it was shaped like a stick insect and it would walk
around a minefield on its legs, and every time it stepped on a mine,
one of the legs would blow up, and it would continue on the other legs
to blow up more mines. And the colonel who was in charge
of this testing exercise ends up calling it off, because, he says, it’s too inhumane to watch this damaged robot
drag itself along the minefield. Now, what would cause
a hardened military officer and someone like myself to have this response to robots? Well, of course, we’re primed
by science fiction and pop culture to really want to personify these things, but it goes a little bit deeper than that. It turns out that we’re biologically
hardwired to project intent and life onto any movement in our physical space
that seems autonomous to us. So people will treat all sorts
of robots like they’re alive. These bomb-disposal units get names. They get medals of honor. They’ve had funerals for them
with gun salutes. And research shows that we do this
even with very simple household robots, like the Roomba vacuum cleaner. (Laughter) It’s just a disc that roams
around your floor to clean it, but just the fact it’s moving
around on its own will cause people to name the Roomba and feel bad for the Roomba
when it gets stuck under the couch. (Laughter) And we can design robots
specifically to evoke this response, using eyes and faces or movements that people automatically,
subconsciously associate with states of mind. And there’s an entire body of research
called human-robot interaction that really shows how well this works. So for example, researchers
at Stanford University found out that it makes people really uncomfortable when you ask them to touch
a robot’s private parts. (Laughter) So from this, but from many other studies, we know, we know that people
respond to the cues given to them by these lifelike machines, even if they know that they’re not real. Now, we’re headed towards a world
where robots are everywhere. Robotic technology is moving out
from behind factory walls. It’s entering workplaces, households. And as these machines that can sense
and make autonomous decisions and learn enter into these shared spaces, I think that maybe the best
analogy we have for this is our relationship with animals. Thousands of years ago,
we started to domesticate animals, and we trained them for work
and weaponry and companionship. And throughout history, we’ve treated
some animals like tools or like products, and other animals,
we’ve treated with kindness and we’ve given a place in society
as our companions. I think it’s plausible we might start
to integrate robots in similar ways. And sure, animals are alive. Robots are not. And I can tell you,
from working with roboticists, that we’re pretty far away from developing
robots that can feel anything. But we feel for them, and that matters, because if we’re trying to integrate
robots into these shared spaces, we need to understand that people will
treat them differently than other devices, and that in some cases, for example, the case of a soldier
who becomes emotionally attached to the robot that they work with, that can be anything
from inefficient to dangerous. But in other cases,
it can actually be useful to foster this emotional
connection to robots. We’re already seeing some great use cases, for example, robots working
with autistic children to engage them in ways
that we haven’t seen previously, or robots working with teachers to engage
kids in learning with new results. And it’s not just for kids. Early studies show that robots
can help doctors and patients in health care settings. This is the PARO baby seal robot. It’s used in nursing homes
and with dementia patients. It’s been around for a while. And I remember, years ago,
being at a party and telling someone about this robot, and her response was, “Oh my gosh. That’s horrible. I can’t believe we’re giving people
robots instead of human care.” And this is a really common response, and I think it’s absolutely correct, because that would be terrible. But in this case,
it’s not what this robot replaces. What this robot replaces is animal therapy in contexts where
we can’t use real animals but we can use robots, because people will consistently treat
them more like an animal than a device. Acknowledging this emotional
connection to robots can also help us anticipate challenges as these devices move into more intimate
areas of people’s lives. For example, is it OK
if your child’s teddy bear robot records private conversations? Is it OK if your sex robot
has compelling in-app purchases? (Laughter) Because robots plus capitalism equals questions around
consumer protection and privacy. And those aren’t the only reasons that our behavior around
these machines could matter. A few years after that first
initial experience I had with this baby dinosaur robot, I did a workshop
with my friend Hannes Gassert. And we took five
of these baby dinosaur robots and we gave them to five teams of people. And we had them name them and play with them and interact with them
for about an hour. And then we unveiled
a hammer and a hatchet and we told them to torture
and kill the robots. (Laughter) And this turned out to be
a little more dramatic than we expected it to be, because none of the participants
would even so much as strike these baby dinosaur robots, so we had to improvise a little,
and at some point, we said, “OK, you can save your team’s robot
if you destroy another team’s robot.” (Laughter) And even that didn’t work.
They couldn’t do it. So finally, we said, “We’re going to destroy all of the robots unless someone takes
a hatchet to one of them.” And this guy stood up,
and he took the hatchet, and the whole room winced
as he brought the hatchet down on the robot’s neck, and there was this half-joking,
half-serious moment of silence in the room for this fallen robot. (Laughter) So that was a really
interesting experience. Now, it wasn’t a controlled
study, obviously, but it did lead to some
later research that I did at MIT with Palash Nandy and Cynthia Breazeal, where we had people come into the lab
and smash these HEXBUGs that move around in a really
lifelike way, like insects. So instead of choosing something cute
that people are drawn to, we chose something more basic, and what we found
was that high-empathy people would hesitate more to hit the HEXBUGS. Now this is just a little study, but it’s part of a larger body of research that is starting to indicate
that there may be a connection between people’s tendencies for empathy and their behavior around robots. But my question for the coming era
of human-robot interaction is not: “Do we empathize with robots?” It’s: “Can robots change
people’s empathy?” Is there reason to, for example, prevent your child
from kicking a robotic dog, not just out of respect for property, but because the child might be
more likely to kick a real dog? And again, it’s not just kids. This is the violent video games question,
but it’s on a completely new level because of this visceral physicality
that we respond more intensely to than to images on a screen. When we behave violently towards robots, specifically robots
that are designed to mimic life, is that a healthy outlet
for violent behavior or is that training our cruelty muscles? We don’t know … But the answer to this question has
the potential to impact human behavior, it has the potential
to impact social norms, it has the potential to inspire rules
around what we can and can’t do with certain robots, similar to our animal cruelty laws. Because even if robots can’t feel, our behavior towards them
might matter for us. And regardless of whether
we end up changing our rules, robots might be able to help us
come to a new understanding of ourselves. Most of what I’ve learned
over the past 10 years has not been about technology at all. It’s been about human psychology and empathy and how we relate to others. Because when a child is kind to a Roomba, when a soldier tries to save
a robot on the battlefield, or when a group of people refuses
to harm a robotic baby dinosaur, those robots aren’t just motors
and gears and algorithms. They’re reflections of our own humanity. Thank you. (Applause)

One thought on “Why we have an emotional connection to robots | Kate Darling”

  1. it is because robots will be more and more similar to angels. angels who are servants created by God long before humans created. God needed to some help to create this world and angels are creaeted for that reason and actully they have helped God's work. however they are fundamentally servants very different position to humans who are God's children. angels are spirituall beings. they are not animals or organism. they don't belong to the physical world. they have higher cognition and thinking than humans in physical world but they are servant to God(parent) they don't have children's love but humankind are fundamentally created as children of God. we grow in the physical world and go to the spirit world to live with God. we unconsciously perceive existence of "invisible" beings like angels. when we spiritually perceive invisible beings who might be not really higher position and not higher love, they could be angels. and we see era of robotics. robots in the future will act as servants to human life. and when we die, we will see real angels in the spirit world, then we may say "wow, real living servants are you!" therefore development of robot is a meaningful work. we have to sincerely consider this point and be thankful to God. even though robots will be developed higher cognition, they will never become human who are fundamentally children of God. we are fundamentally created as children of God by having deeper love.

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