Humans Feel Empathy For Robots, Scientists Find

The ability to feel empathy toward others is supposed to be an innate human ability. But when we refer to “others,” does that include robots? New research suggests it does.

A study from Japan, published on Nov. 3 in the journal Scientific Reports, offers new neurophysiological evidence that humans can have an empathetic reaction to humanoid robots — and represents a major step toward understanding how we interact with them.

For the study, a group of psychologists and engineers from Toyohashi University of Technology and Kyoto University analyzed how the brains of 15 healthy adults reacted to seeing human-like robots “in pain.” The study results are preliminary, due to the small sample size.

Researchers monitored electrical activity in the participants’ brains through electroencephalography, or EEG, as the research subjects viewed various images of humans or robots in painful and non-painful situations. Some examples of those images can be seen below.

The researchers found that parts of the participants’ brains associated with empathy were active when they viewed both humans and robots in painful situations. However, the EEG results revealed that their brains responded slightly more slowly to the robot images.

“This process [of showing empathy for robots] takes … 350 milliseconds or more to recognize the situation and affect our cognition or consciousness,” said Michiteru Kitazaki, a cognitive neuroscientist at Toyohashi and a co-author of the study, in an email to The Huffington Post. Thus, Kitazaki explained, the participants did not seem to experience the same “contagious or automatic empathy” toward robots that they felt toward humans.

The researchers concluded that we seem to empathize with humanoid robots in a way that is similar to how we empathize with humans, but our response toward robots may be somewhat weaker because we can’t immediately put ourselves in a robot’s place.

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