Watch Researchers Giggle While They Electrocute a Lifelike Robot Child

Gif: YouTube

It seems we’ve learned absolutely nothing from cautionary tales like the Terminator films, because researchers in Japan have upgraded a robot that looks like a human child with the ability to feel the pain from an electrical charge applied to its skin and wince in pain.

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The robot being subjected to these new experiments is named Affetto, and it’s been in development at Japan’s Osaka University for over eight years now. It started “life” as what appeared to be a hairless animatronic doll, with facial expressions limited to the movements of its eyes and mouth.

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Over the years Affetto has gained not only a healthy crop of hair, but several generations of upgraded artificial silicone skin, and, with it, the ability to generate more humanlike expressions thanks to an underlying series of pneumatic actuators. As the actuators extend and retract, they contort the skin to create the appearance of facial muscle movement. They’re able to contort the entire face when the robot’s eyes open wide, when its mouth smiles, or, in the case of this latest Affetto update, when the little robot is mildly electrocuted.

Despite the giggles from the robotics researchers when they reach for the trigger button in this video, the pain response experimentation actually has some worthwhile intentions. First and foremost, the goal is to develop a way for robots to sense, recognize, and react to pain. The robot isn’t necessarily experiencing the zap in a negative way, but a strong bolt of electricity could potentially do some real damage to a bot, and having this ability would allow nearby humans to recognize potential issues before a robot fails. Imagine a robot designed to lift heavy loads making strained grunting sounds when an object it’s hoisting is heavier than its load capacity. The sounds or appearance of pain that humans are all familiar with are harder to ignore than a warning beep on a computer.

That’s another aspect of this research that Affetto’s creators are looking to explore. A robot that’s able to “feel” and identify pain would potentially be more sympathetic and empathetic to humans it’s working with or programmed to care for. In Japan, the advancement of robots is seen as a potential solution when it comes to caring for the aging population, or simply serving as a friendly companion those who need one. By understanding pain and discomfort, a robot would be, at least in theory, better able to identify it in humans, and react accordingly to provide not only safe physical assistance (help getting in and out of bed) but potentially even emotional support when it’s needed, but not necessarily asked for.

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DISCUSSION

In the early ‘60s a psychologist named Milgram conducted an experiment in which subjects were instructed to administer larger and larger electrical shocks to a person wired to a chair in an adjacent room. The control board had switches for voltage up to 450 volts, labeled “Lethal”.

When shocks were administered the person in the chair responded with grunts and later screams. Subjects were told only that the test must continue, or that they had no choice but to continue the test. All subjects administered shocks up to 300 volts, and two thirds of them administered shocks of 450 volts, the lethal level.

The person in the chair was in on the experiment and was play-acting; there were no actual shocks, but the subjects didn’t know that. Milgram concluded that if the US wanted to set up Nazi-style concentration camps, they could find people to be guards in those camps in every American city.

I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist.

Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the participants’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.

The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.” - Milgram