While creating an empathetic robot is a long-held dream, understanding whether humans genuinely empathize with robots should—in theory—be easier. Now, a team of scientists have analyzed fMRI brain scans to reveal that humans have similar brain function when shown affection and violence being inflicted on both humans and robots.

The experiments, conducted at the University of Duisburg, Essen, had 40 participants sit and watch videos of a small dinosaur-shaped robot. It was either treated in an affectionate or violent way, and then researchers measured physiological arousal—finding overwhelmingly strong reaction to the scenes of violence. A second study used functional magnetic-resonance imaging, and shows that affectionate interaction towards both robots and humans resulted in similar neural activation patterns in the brain.

That suggests that those actions elicit similar reactions for interactions with both humans and robots. The problem with most experiments on this subject is that participants generally choose not to report emotional reaction to robots—an fMRI scan gets around that problem. Rosenthal-von der Pütten, one of the researchers, explains the implications of the findings:


"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. 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."

The scientists present their findings at the 63rd Annual International Communication Association conference in London in June. [EurekaAlert]

Image by EU VERE project, IDC, Weizmann Inst. of Science, CNRS