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How Do Humans Really Feel About Robots?

In a world where mannequins track your every move and the waiter at that restaurant is made of metal, robots are inevitably becoming more commonplace.

But how much do we really care about these cold, controlled helpers? Most robots we encounter are far from the emotionally-capable interpretations in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. One robotics professor in New Zealand put it to the test, analyzing whether a robot’s intelligence and agreeableness influence human interaction.

In Christoph Bartneck’s study (loosely based on the Milgram obedience experiment), he sought to determine how people would react if a robot begged for its “life.” Bartneck found that participants hesitated three times longer to switch the robot off when it was intelligent and agreeable, compared to an unhelpful machine. The smarter the robot, the nicer the human.

The main issue, researchers say in their study, is that robots embody and exhibit lifelike behavior but are not alive. For these machines to be integrated into our society, it’s necessary to understand what attitude humans have toward them.

Using the relationships humans have with one another as a model, Bartneck applied the theory with a cat-robot. If a stranger helps you out, you are more likely to reciprocate the favor. On the other hand, if questioned by said stranger without previous interaction, you’d be less likely to oblige.

The expressive iCat robot, which possesses the ability to talk like a human, was paired with a participant for the experiment. The human-robot duo was instructed to play a game together, matching colors on a screen. For half of the participants the robot was intelligent, for the other half, it wasn’t.

Researchers also controlled the robot’s level of social interaction, sometimes making it agreeable and other times, not. When experimenters prompted people to turn the robot off, the robot immediately started to plead, “It can’t be true, switch me off? You are not going to switch me off are you?”

Though all 42 participants decided to end the robot’s life, the machine’s intelligence had a strong effect on the users’ hesitation to turn the dial. In some cases, the helpful robot was perceived to be somewhat alive, influencing the person’s reaction.

Watch the video, below, to see a woman reason with the iCat while explaining her decision.

“You made a stupid choice,” she says to the machine. “Yea. No. I will switch you off … this will happen.”

What does the future hold for human-robot relationships? Bartneck and his colleagues explain that as robots become more prevalent, they must be agreeable in order to be seen as alive.

Do you think you could ever feel bad for a robot? How do you think humans will interact with machines? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Image courtesy of Christoph Bartneck; Video courtesy of YouTube, Christoph Bartneck

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