Don’t rage against the machine: robots elicit empathy from humans - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 24 April 2013

The question of how people should interact with robots is a common theme in popular culture, from the death sentences meted out to the replicants in Blade Runner to the tribulations of Wall-E in the eponymous film.


Don’t rage against the machine: robots elicit empathy from humans

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 24 April 2013


Helen Ward

The question of how people should interact with robots is a common theme in popular culture, from the death sentences meted out to the replicants in Blade Runner to the tribulations of Wall-E in the eponymous film.

Now, German scientists researching how people relate to machines have discovered what we probably already knew: that, rationally or not, we feel empathy for robots in the same way as we do for humans.

The study by researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen asked 40 people to watch film footage of a robot being treated either with affection – stroked and tickled – or in a violent manner – having a plastic bag placed over its head and being beaten.

When they were asked how they felt about the films, the participants were clear that they disliked the maltreatment of the robot, a small green-and-brown dinosaur.

In a follow-up study, the researchers led by Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten used brain scans to see how blood flowed through the brains of 14 participants as they were shown films of humans, robots or inanimate objects.

They found that witnessing violence towards both the robot and human subjects resulted in similar patterns of activity in the brain, indicating that the emotional reaction was similar. A third video, which showed an inanimate cube being attacked, elicited no response from the participants. It is worth highlighting that researchers did find that the participants were more empathetic towards humans.

One of the reasons the findings are of interest is because of ongoing work to develop robotic helpers and companions for elderly or housebound people. In Japan, which has an ageing population, researchers have already developed several, including the Paro, a touch-sensitive seal-shaped robot which is designed to help people with dementia. But people do not tend to form attachments to the robots and so finding out which characteristics elicit empathy could help to make them more effective.

“Robot companions can be useful and beneficial tools,” Dr Rosenthal-von der Pütten said. “They could assist elderly people in their daily tasks and enable them to live longer autonomously in their homes.

“A common problem is that a new technology is exciting at the beginning but this effect wears off. The development and implementation of uniquely humanlike abilities in robots like theory of mind, emotion and empathy is considered to have the potential to solve this dilemma.”



Questions for discussion or further research:

  • What is 'empathy'? Why is it an important skill to have?
  • Which jobs or professions require a high level of empathy?
  • Can you think of any activities which might help a person to become more empathetic?
  • Why do you think people reacted to the dinosaur robot being treated badly, but not to the cube being attacked?

Resources for you


Robots

  • Introduce your class to the topic of robots with a web of lesson ideas focusing on the use pneumatics to create movement.

Empathy

  • Provoke a discussion on empathy, what it is and why it’s important, with this PowerPoint-based resource

SEAL display

  • A comprehensive list of SEAL objectives (social and emotional aspects of learning) for use in the classroom to help motivate everyone.

Robot themed Maths

  • Teach addition and subtraction in a fun and engaging way with this robot-themed Maths lesson.


Further news resources


First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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