Are Humans Developing an Emotional Attachment to Robots?

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A robot acts as a witness for a wedding ceremony in Japan. A new study suggests we're becoming emotionally attached to human-like robots. Yuriko Nakao/reuters

The anthropomorphization of technology is hard to avoid in this modern world. Your phone has a cute name and sexy voice, and some of the most beloved fictional characters are fashioned from silicon and steel.

As technology becomes more advanced, it may also be that people are becoming more emotionally attached to these lifelike objects, according to a new study that suggests humans empathize with robots.

The study, published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, looked at whether people would react as viscerally to images of a robot hand being cut with a knife as they would to the same image of a human hand with a knife.

To conduct the study, researchers from Japan’s Toyohashi University of Technology and Kyoto University hooked up 15 adults to electroencephalograms to read their brain activity, then had them look at photos of human or robot hands in situations that would cause a great deal of physical pain in a person but, at worst, would lead to a short circuit in the robot. Some of the images depicted the human hand and robot hand potentially being cut with a knife.

The researchers found that regardless of whether a study participant looked at a human or humanoid hand, their brains showed “common neural responses” that signified feelings of empathy. However, brain activity was delayed slightly at the sight of the robot hand. It took 300 to 350 milliseconds for the robot image to elicit a neural response, compared with 220 to 300 milliseconds when viewing the same image with a human hand. The difference in reaction time could be explained because of “the unnaturalness of robot hands cut by knives,” according to the paper. But it also might be simply “because the robot stimuli had low color contrast and the robot hand was larger than the human hand, although the knives were identical.”

Some scientists say that interactive technology engages parts of the brain that are involved in social intelligence, or the ability to effectively interact with other people. Other research suggests people may experience feelings of intimacy toward technology because our brains aren’t necessarily hardwired for life in the 21st century.

Many experts find this attachment to droids a little worrisome. Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has told the press in recent years that we’re rapidly approaching a point in society where we may actually prefer the kinship of machines to relationships with real people and animals.

“The seduction of the robotic provides a window onto how much people are tempted to sidestep encounters with friends and family,” Turkle wrote in an anthology article published in Close Engagements With Artificial Companionship. “Over-stressed, overworked, people claim exhaustion and overload. These days people will admit they’d rather leave a voice mail or send an email than talk face-to-face. And from there, they say, ‘I’d rather talk to the robot. Friends can be exhausting. The robot will always be there for me. And whenever I’m done, I can walk away.’”