Robot abuse is a bummer for the human brain

As loveable toy dinosaur Pleo gets both hugged and strangled in the name of science, two studies suggest that we're hardwired to sympathize with them. But how deeply can people feel for robots?

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read
Good friends: Asimo, seen here meeting German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer, makes everyone feel good. Even when it falls down stairs. Honda

When they take over, robots will surely take advantage of studies suggesting we pathetic meatsacks are hardwired to sympathize with them.

Watching a robot being cuddled or abused produces similar reactions in humans to watching people undergo the same treatment, according to two new studies to be presented at the International Communication Association Conference in London in June.

In one, subjects were shown videos in which popular dino-bot Pleo was either hugged or treated violently. Perhaps not surprisingly, the subjects' skin conductance levels rose when Pleo suffered, suggesting they were distressed.

They also reported feeling bad for the bot. Check out how the poor little guy was mistreated in the vid below.

In the second study, scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze subjects' brain activity as they watched videos of Pleo and a person being treated affectionately, as well as a man strangling a woman and then strangling Pleo.

With the affectionate-treatment videos, the subjects' limbic systems displayed similar neural activity. When the woman was abused, however, the neural response was greater than when the robot was abused.

"We think that, in general, the robot stimuli elicit the same emotional processing as the human stimuli," study lead author Astrid Rosenthal-von der Putten of the University of Duisburg Essen was quoted as saying by Live Science.

And that was just with Pleo, a toy that looks like an animal. What if they were using lifelike androids?

Casual surveys tell us that nearly 1 in 10 people would like to have sex with a robot, so it's no wonder we'll react if they get mistreated.

Live Science also reminds us that some soldiers form a deep affection for robots, especially those working on the dangerous task of eliminating explosive ordnance disposal. Some have even risked getting hit by enemy fire to help their bots.

Indeed, psychologists who have studied the brain's mirror neuron system, which activates when we do something or see someone doing something, have noted that it shows a hardwired response to the behavior of autonomous robots.

It looks like we're already hopelessly enthralled to these machines. Anyone still care to resist?

(Via Live Science)