Empathy and Robotic Technology

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Robotic Technology and Empathy

From automated manufacturing to self-driving cars, robotic technology and robots are becoming a part of our daily lives and that raises some interesting questions. Considering the human tendency to kick vending machines, steal vehicles, and curse at Siri, it seems likely that service robots will be at risk for widespread vandalism and abuse. How should robots respond to us and how should we treat them?

This summer, a Russian customer service robot took the internet by storm, reportedly escaping twice from the lab where it was created. Its capture and the announced plan for deactivation led to a public outcry, complete with pleas to spare its so-called life. Apparently, the public perceived that the machine, programmed with learning technology, had developed a characteristically animate desire for freedom.

The escape of Promobot was likely a publicity stunt designed to create a demand among mall owners hoping to bring in curious customers. Having been spared deactivation, it surfaced again recently, getting “arrested” by Russian police for recording opinions at a political rally.

You might remember the case of Hitchbot, the friendly, handmade machine designed to hitch rides, interacting with and relying on the kindness of strangers in order to travel. Hitchbot made it safely across several European countries in various vehicles. The public was enthralled by this social experiment, posting videos of their interactions on social media. Its US tour in 2015 lasted two weeks and only 300 miles before it was found dismembered and dumped in Philadelphia, a disappointing outcome for its fans and creators.

Both robots in these cases resembled benign, human-shaped kitchen appliances with comical, digital countenances. Had they been spidery, stainless steel nightmares, would the public reaction to their treatment have been different?

Science fiction taught us to fear the day that our machines decide to exterminate us, but the misadventure of Hitchbot indicates they may have more to fear from us than we do from them. While it’s hard not to wonder if its violent demise was a typically American act, an interesting Japanese study revealed a disturbing tendency toward robot abuse among children.

From June of 2013 to July of 2014, 28 children from 5 to 9 years old were observed interacting with a machine resembling Promobot in a shopping mall. What the researchers witnessed were instances of physical and verbal abuse including kicking, punching and obstructing the robot, covering the eyes and forcibly manipulating the head and limbs, even when the robot requested they stop.

The children who exhibited the most severe abusive behavior gave curiosity, enjoyment and seeing others doing it as their reasons, though one child mentioned specific intent to cause the robot injury. Even though the majority of the bullies perceived the robot as human-like, they showed no empathy. Of course, some children have a tendency to bully animals and each other.

An article appearing in the New Yorker detailed a quite different response from adults. A test of a minesweeping robot that involved getting its legs blown off was characterized as inhumane by an Army colonel and stopped even though the robot was that eight-legged, spidery nightmare.

In another study, adult participants were directed to beat cute, robotic dinosaurs. One removed the battery first, others refused to participate and finally, others were persuaded to sacrifice one to “save” the others.

Clearly, adults exhibit a greater degree of empathy toward robots than children, but there will always be the exception to the rule. In September of last year, a drunken man was arrested for kicking and damaging Pepper, a Japanese customer service robot, after becoming upset with a clerk. Given the price of robotic technologies and the way some people react to them, service robots will need to be designed to thwart abuse, theft and vandalism.

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