by Cristi Mercedes Saylor. August 2021

Robot and Frank

Frank, a fictional character in the movie, “Robot and Frank”, enlists his caregiver robot to help him pull off a heist. Robot knows people will ask about the heist and encourages Frank to wipe its memory. Frank resists; it’s as if he’d be killing a friend.

Having feelings for robots doesn’t just happen in the movies any more. As robots become more ubiquitous, researchers have begun to study our emotional relationship with robots. According to Kate Darling, a robot ethicist, humans will develop empathy for anything that moves autonomously.

Robots in Our Homes

Ageless Innovations’ companion robotic cat. Looks and sounds real.

Today three types of robots can be found in people’s homes: exclusively utilitarian robots such as Roombas that vacuum carpets; robots specifically designed for companionship, for example Ageless Innovations’ cats and dogs; and robots designed for fun and entertainment. One popular example is Pleo the baby dinosaur. Researchers have found that people respond with empathy to all kinds of robots.

Sung Ja-Young and her research team studied 30 families with Roombas. They found that the families treated the Roomba as a cross between a pet and a machine. ”The Roomba is just a disc that roams around your floor to clean it, but just the fact it’s moving around on its own will cause people to name the Roomba and feel bad for the Roomba when it gets stuck under the couch.” Sung said the randomness of the Roomba’s movements contributed to people’s responses.

And it’s not just Roombas…

Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, built an autonomous multi-legged five-foot long robot designed to detect mines by stepping on them. When one robot was down to one leg and still working well, the colonel in charge ordered the test stopped. When asked why, the colonel said that the test was “inhumane.”

Two Ways People Develop Feelings for Robots

Both of these examples illustrate that robots don’t need to look particularly human-like or even animal-like to elicit empathy. However, they do need to move in random and autonomous ways. It is this movement that causes people to have feelings for robots.

Another way people may develop feelings for robots relates to something called mirror neurons. These neurons cause people to copy what others do. For example, if a person yawns the person sitting near them will yawn. In the case of a companion robotic cat, people will blink when it blinks or talk to it when it meows.

And it’s not just robots with bodies…

People now befriend virtual personalities such as Miku Hatsune from Japan. “She” was developed by Vocaloid software and released in 2007. According to Connor Egbert, a computer security engineer and former high school national robotics champion, Miku’s software enables people to interact with her. She has even performed at live concerts and is legally married.

Computer Scientists Chime In

When presented with examples of people developing empathy for robots, Sara Strickman, a computer science and software engineer major, questioned whether all of these emotional responses to robots can really be called empathy. She said that it could just be that people project their own emotions onto robots.

Both Strickman and Egbert stressed that because the behavior of a machine is based on machine learning, it doesn’t deserve empathy. “The machine works because you give it feedback, both positive and negative. If the machine or robot receives negative feedback it will try to find a way to change its behavior.”

Pleo: Robot? Pet? Or Both?

This change of behavior based on feedback can be seen with Pleo the baby dinosaur. A Pleo’s personality is partially hardwired into it. The rest of its personality develops based on how it’s treated. As a result, the actions of both machine and human influence each other. A Pleo’s personality evolves through interactions with its owner, and the owner develops feelings based on the dinosaur’s behavior.

Pleo Robot: is it a Pet? A robot? Or a little of each?

So Is It Just Machine Learning?

According to Strickman machine learning wants your attention, “When people give it attention they will develop empathy.” As a result the more people pay attention to their Roombas or Pleos the more they will project their own feelings onto the machine. This results in a person feeling empathy for the machine. This certainly is the case for Frank.

After spending a lot of time and attention on Robot, Frank now sees Robot more as a friend than a machine. Frank thinks there’s “a lot more going on in that noggin’ of yours.” When Robot tells Frank it doesn’t care if its memory is wiped because “I know that I’m not alive.” Frank ends the conversation, “I don’t want to talk about how you don’t exist. It’s making me uncomfortable.”

Robots and People: A Changing Relationship

The questions of how and why people respond emotionally to robots and what that might mean for society remain complex. If researchers are correct, it won’t matter whether people interact with utilitarian robots or cute ones, the more time people spend with robots, the more likely they will develop feelings for them.

And in time questions regarding emotional responses to robots may become moot. Just as Frank considers Robot a friend; families with Roombas think of them as pets; and Miku’s adoring fans accept Miku as a virtual personality, society might come to take the Japanese approach of “giving inanimate objects a soul” all the while knowing these helpers and companions are actually machines. And yes, Frank did wipe Robot’s memory. Robot insisted. The viewer is left to ponder why. Did Robot act altruistically? Or was it just following its programming?