Touching a robot can elicit an emotional response

At least part of our brain sees humanoid robots as people

Robots are becoming more prevalent in society and may someday be an everyday sight in our homes. A big question right now is what will robots mean to us emotionally? Trust and an emotional connection could be required for humans to take to robots as parts of their normal lives. We don’t know if robots will ever have real feelings, but AI experts are trying to at least emulate emotions so that we will embrace them with open arms.

Researchers from Stanford University have conducted a study to investigate the emotional arousal of human participants when they make physical contact with robots. If we think of humanoid robots as walking toasters, there probably won’t be much of a reaction. However, if we think of them as living beings then we should expect emotional responses when touching them.

The study used Aldbaran Robotics‘ popular Nao robot. Participants were told to touch 13 different parts of the robot’s body while a sensor on their other hand measure their skin conductance, revealing their level of physiological arousal. They were also timed to see if they hesitated and took longer to touch certain parts of the body.

When asked to touch areas of the body that aren’t sensitive on humans, the participants showed no arousal and were quick to perform the task. When they were asked to touch sensitive areas such as the eyes or where reproductive organs would normally be found, participants took longer and were more emotionally aroused. As cute as Nao is, it’s just a plastic shell with wires inside. Yet these participants couldn’t help being emotionally aroused when touching it. It doesn’t mean people really think the robots are alive; it’s just that our brains can at least be reminded of real people when interacting with humanoid robots.

In June the researchers plan to present their results at the 66th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in Fukuoka, Japan. It will be fascinating to see this area of research develop as robots become more capable of emulating human emotions. Emotions and trust are central to human society and might be what really matters when it comes to integrating robots. Cultural differences will also be interesting since people from countries like China want more humanoid robots and people in the UK want robots to be less human-like.

Main image © Vincent Desailly

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