Researchers Threatened a Robot With a Knife to See If Humans Cared

The first neurophysiological evidence of humans’ ability to feel for robots.

In the future, social robots will most likely step in as our carers, companions, and teachers. But will we actually empathize with them in the same way that we are supposed to with each other?

In a study published on Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers present neurophysiological evidence that confirms humans feel empathy when they see a human-shaped robot hand get hurt, similar to when they see an actual human hand hurt.

For their experiment, led by researchers from Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan, the scientists showed 15 volunteers 56 different color photographs from the first-person perspective of both a human and a human-shaped robot hand in different painful and non-painful situations. Some of the pictures showed a human or a robotic finger being cut by a knife, while others showed the knife at a safe distance from the human or robot hand. They attached electroencephalography (EEG) devices to the volunteers to measure their neurological responses to each image.

Which image do you empathize more with? Image: Toyohashi University of Technology

The researchers found that the human observers showed similar empathic neural responses to the robots as they did to other humans. In their paper, they attributed these empathy levels to the design of the robot hand.

"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," they write.

In a report by Al Jazeera, Matthew Howard, a lecturer in robotics at King's College London, said that the current study was limited as it only measured human empathy responses to inanimate robots. He suggested how future studies could measure human responses to when, for example, a teddy bear was beheaded.

However, Japanese roboticist and creator of the extremely lifelike androids Hiroshi Ishiguro told me that humans are only likely to empathize with robots that seem humanlike, and that reactions to teddy bears or other inanimate objects would be another case in point altogether.

The need to feel empathy toward robots depends on their application

Ishiguro said that studies like this one were important given the way social robots such as carebots and companion bots would become increasingly widespread in society. He said, however, that the need to feel empathy toward robots would depend on their application. For instance, if they were being used in social contexts such as hospitals and schools, then inciting empathy from humans would be important, but not so much if they were used in industrial applications.

Over the past years, as the push to integrate robots into society continues, much research has been conducted on how humans respond to robots. In October 2014, researchers presented a paper detailing how humans were more likely to relate to their robotic counterparts when they were just as flawed as they were. And back in 2010, Italian researchers analysed the effects on humans if they were to start bullying their robotic counterparts.

Next up, the researchers of this paper are going to test how empathy levels would differ when volunteers were presented with a differently-shaped robot hand, say one without fingers that the likes of tiny space-faring android bot Kirobo have. Would we feel equally sad if that got slashed?

Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.