Empathy for Robots

With robotics rapidly advancing, there will soon come a time where interactions with robots will become regular in society. In human to human interaction, empathy plays a major role in being able to relate and connect with others. As robots continue to play a larger role in our daily lives, the question remains: can we empathize with machines?

Researchers from Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan  showed 15 volunteers 56 different photographs of both a human and a human-shaped robot hand in situations depicting different states of bodily harm. They attached EEG devices to the volunteers to measure their neurological responses to each image. What they found was that humans showed similar empathic neural responses to the robots as they did to other humans. The researchers attributed these empathy levels to the human-like design of the robot hand.

Attributing Humanity to Machines

In the Scientific Reports journal, the researchers wrote that “humans can attribute humanity to robots and feel their pain because the basic shape of the robot hand in the present study was the same as that of the human hand.” The researchers will now be looking into how empathy levels are affected when volunteers are shown a differently-shaped robot hand. For now, we’ll have to wait and see if empathy can carry humanity across uncanny valley.

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