Robots in Pain Are Here to Crush Our Achy Breaky Hearts
We’ve all cried over The Iron Giant’s untimely death, and yearned for Wall-E’s lonely strolls around a ravaged Earth. Yet the question of whether we truly feel bad for robots hasn’t been explored outside of pop culture—until now. A new study by a team of researchers in Japan set out to examine how much we empathize with the machines that are inching closer and closer to going all Skynet on our ass and creating a nuclear apocalypse. Sorry. I meant to say that machines are becoming more human-like every year, like the cast of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
The researchers performed EEG (electroencephalography) brain scans on 15 adults who looked at pictures of human and robot hands in painful or nonpainful situations, and found the first neurophysiological evidence that humans feel empathy for robots in pain. Are we on the precipice of feeling real feelings for our technology, something beyond the adoration we have for our iPhones? Not quite yet. Keep that Furby locked away, because its cold dead eyes still probably want to murder you while you sleep. The research, like all science, comes to about fifteen different conclusions, and features big words like “electroencephalography” and “somatosensory cortex,” so we’ll break it down for you as best we can.
Basically, the group of fifteen adults in the experiment felt a little bit of something when shown photos of human hands and robot hands in painful and non-painful situations. Hooked up to brain scanners, the humans were measured for two modes of empathetic processing called “top-down” and “bottom-up,” which apparently is both a scientific term and a phrase describing our weekend.
“The ‘top-down process of empathy’ is the process that takes time for 350 milliseconds or more to recognize a situation and have it affect our cognition or consciousness,” co-author of the study Michiteru Kitazaki told Inverse. “Thus it is not contagious or automatic empathy.”
After viewing the images, empathy toward the humanoid robot was similar to the humans in perceived pain, but the top-down process of empathy was weaker towards robots than humans. This could mean that they only felt empathy initially because the hand looks human, but researchers believe it’s a sign of true connection with our eventual robot overlords.
While the scientific community debates whether we’ll soon feel true empathy towards machines, technology continues to encroach on every aspect of our lives—from Google Glass and science ovens to Apple Watches and Tamagotchi. If you need us, we’ll be rewatching Her and crying as we whisper sweet nothings to Siri.
Images via Scientific Reports, FanPop.