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People Have Empathy for Robots, Studies Say

Update Date: Apr 24, 2013 09:53 AM EDT

Humans feel empathy for robots regardless of their form, German researchers say.

Two separate studies conducted by the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany show that humans respond to robots with empathy whether they are shaped like humans or dinosaurs.

The first study required 40 participants to watch a video where a small robot, shaped like a dinosaur, was either treated violently or affectionately. Researchers measured participants physiological arousal (heart rate, pupil dilation, perspiration) while they watched the video, and then asked what their emotional state was following what they had just seen. The data showed that people felt worse and displayed more physiological arousal when the dino-bot was treated violently.

The second study used functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine 14 participants who also watched videos of a human, a robot, and an inanimate object being treated affectionately and violently. The inanimate object did not trigger a neurological response, but the videos of an affectionate human and robot triggered similar responses in the limbic system - a region of the forebrain that is involved in emotional and autonomic nervous system responses. The abusive videos also yielded a similar response from the limbic system, but the participants displayed more empathy for humans rather than the robots.

For most people, robots mainly exist in sci-fi movies like iRobot and Star Wars, or simply serve to help with maintenance tasks like vacuuming the pool or the living room. But in the near future, human-robot interaction (HRI) will become more important as the development of robotic companions becomes more popular.

Engineers at USC's Robotics Research Lab are already working on a robot named Bandit to help children with autism learn to interact with others, according to the Los Angeles Times. Similarly, the German researchers are trying to develop companion robots to help senior citizens carry out daily tasks, which would provide the elderly with the ability to still live independently in their own homes.

 "Our 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," Astrid Rosenthal-van der Putten, one of the researchers from the University of Duisberg Essen, said in a statement.

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