Humans May Empathize With Robots, May One Day Prefer Them to People


Who among us knew that Wall-E, the lost puppy of robots, foreshadowed our emotional dependence on wire and metal? As the line distinguishing human from robot shifts and blurs, it turns out that those of us with flesh and blood may no longer reserve our empathy for other humans. A recent study published in Scientific Reports indicates that we can get attached to our robotic pals, too.

Newsweek reports that the study, conducted in Japan by researchers from Toyohashi University of Technology and Kyoto University, tested whether humans reacted differently to “photos of human or robot hands that would cause a great deal of pain in a person but, at worst, would lead to a short circuit in the robot.” The results revealed “‘common neural responses’ that signified feelings of empathy.”

Different theories exist as to why our research leads to these results—why we may develop affection for robots. From Newsweek:

“Some scientists say that interactive technology engages parts of the brain that are involved in social intelligence, or the ability to effectively interact with other people. Other research shows people may experience feelings of intimacy toward technology because our brains aren’t necessarily hardwired for life in the 21st century.”

The next question to address is whether we should be concerned about these findings. Are we in danger of having our hearts broken by silky-voiced operating systems, à la Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her? Or, on a more positive note, will I one day have a Wall-E of my very own? (Please, oh please.)

Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, indeed warns of possible detrimental effects. As Newsweek notes, she “has told the press in recent years that we’re rapidly approaching a point in society where we may actually prefer the kinship of machines to relationships with real people and animals.”

Some people may not view Turkle’s admonishment as disconcerting. And frankly, if Wall-E ever does become my live-in companion, none of you will ever hear from me again. But Turkle is right to warn us. For the more we recognize ourselves in robots, the more difficult it will be for us, as humans, to understand ourselves in relation to them.

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Image via Shutterstock.

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