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Creating a Ghostly Presence with Robotics

A master-slave robotic system was used by researchers in Switzerland to create a ghostly experience through sensory dissonance. Photo courtesy of Alain Herzog/EPFL.
A master-slave robotic system was used by researchers in Switzerland to create a ghostly experience through sensory dissonance. Photo courtesy of Alain Herzog/EPFL.

New research suggests that if you program your robot in just the right way, you could create enough sensory dissonance to scare the heck out of your friends and family.

Researchers in Switzerland used a master-slave robotic system to try to create a ghostly experience, in order to study the nature of hallucinations. In the first part of the experiment, blindfolded participants moved their hand in front of their body, while touching the master robot. A slave robot would reproduce the same movement on the participant’s back at the same time. Such an approach did not create a ghostly experience, the researchers said, because the movements were synchronized.

However, when the researchers added a delay — such that the participant felt the movements on their back after they had moved their hand — their brains were unable to make sense of the asynchronicity and the participants experienced a ghostly illusion.

“For some, the feeling was even so strong that they asked to stop the experiment,” said Giulio Rognini, who led the study at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “Our brain possesses several representations of our body in space. Under normal conditions, it is able to assemble a unified self-perception of the self from these representations. But when the system malfunctions because of disease — or, in this case, a robot — this can sometimes create a second representation of one’s own body, which is no longer perceived as ‘me’ but as someone else, a ‘presence’.”

The researchers hope that their work will aid in understanding the nature of hallucinations often experienced by those with conditions such as schizophrenia. Such patients often hear voices and feel the actions of delusions they experience. This research suggests that such feelings might be caused by a challenged sensory system.

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