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Humans can empathize with robots

It's important to understand how humans feel about robots, if we are going to work together. (Photo credit: Toyohashi University of Technology)
It’s important to understand how humans feel about robots, if we are going to work together. (Photo credit: Toyohashi University of Technology)

New research from Japan suggests humans feel empathy toward robots they think are in pain. Electroencephalography (EEG) studies of humans found their brains responded similarly to perceived pain in robots as they did in other humans — except at the beginning of the process. The researchers say this difference may be due to the humans’ difficulty in taking a robot’s perspective.

This is thought to be the first neurophysiological evidence of humans’ ability to empathize with robots in perceived pain and highlighted the difference in human empathy toward other humans and robots.

The researchers — from Toyohashi University of Technology and Kyoto University — performed electroencephalography (EEG) in 15 healthy adults who were observing pictures of either a human or robotic hand in painful or non-painful situations, such as a finger being cut by a knife. Event-related brain potentials for empathy toward humanoid robots in perceived pain were similar to those for empathy toward humans in pain. However, the beginning of the top-down process of empathy was weaker in empathy toward robots than toward humans.

“The ascending phase of P3 (350-500 ms after the stimulus presentation) showed a positive shift in the observer for a human in pain in comparison with the no-pain condition, but not for a robot in perceived pain. Then, the difference between empathy toward humans and robots disappeared in the descending phase of P3 (500-650 ms),” explains Associate Professor Michiteru Kitazaki, “The positive shift of P3 is considered as reflecting the top-down process of empathy. Its beginning phase seems related to the process of perspective taking, as was shown in a previous study.”

These results suggest that we empathize with humanoid robots in a similar fashion as we do with other humans. However, the beginning of the top-down process of empathy is weaker for empathy toward robots than toward humans. It may be caused by humans’ inability in taking a robot’s perspective.

It is reasonable that we cannot take the perspective of robots because their body and mind (if it exists) are very different from ours. The researchers are trying to manipulate humans’ perspective taking of robots in a further study. This study will contribute to the development of human-friendly robots whom we feel sympathy for and comfortable with.

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