Why Humans Love Robots Like People

Soldiers refuse to leave war-zone robots behind; people feel pain when asked to torture small mechanized animals. Why do we get so attached to our droids?

03.26.17 4:15 AM ET

Humans are strange creatures. We sleepwalk, pick our noses, and name our cars. Some of us like black licorice and some of us are afraid of cotton balls. Of all our idiosyncratic tendencies, our attachment to things—blankets, stuffed animals, toys, vehicles, smartphones—is particularly common and sheds light on how humans feel about robots, and why.

In the movie Her, Theodore Twombly falls in love with Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system. In Ex Machina, Caleb falls in love with the sentient robot Ada. Both Samantha and Ada are conscious—like humans, they experience the world objectively and subjectively, and both express emotions, genuine or not, toward the human characters. It’s easy to understand why these lonely men fall for them, especially given Ada’s sexualized appearance and Samantha’s husky ScarJo voice

But these are just movies. In the real world, robots aren’t conscious (and the jury’s out on whether they ever will be). They can’t feel anything. No matter how advanced or humanlike, robots are comprised of circuits, cameras, and algorithms. They’re machines, or as Isaac Asimov often argues, they’re tools, not beings. But if that’s the case, what explains our feelings for them?

The more humanlike a robot seems in both appearance and ability, the easier it is for us to project human thoughts and feelings onto them (this effect is even more pronounced in Japan, where followers of Shinto or animism believe that objects can have souls). Anthropomorphizing is a natural human tendency, as our understanding of the world and everything in it is based on our own experiences. We personify all kinds of objects—we refer to a trusty vehicle as “old girl,” feel nagged when our alarm clocks scream at us to wake up, and experience irritation or sympathy as our dated computer limps along, struggling to obey our commands.

We do this with robots, too. MIT researcher Kate Darling conducts experiments in which people play with Pleos, small mechanized dinosaurs, and are then asked to “torture” them.  Participants often can’t bear to do it and can’t watch when others do, even though they know Pleos can’t feel anything. The exercise really isn’t about the Pleo at all—it’s about the human participants and their feelings. It doesn’t matter that their attachment only goes in one direction. The more affection someone feels for an object or a robot, the stronger the tendency to anthropomorphize becomes. Think back to your favorite childhood toy—perhaps a stuffed animal or a blanket. How would you feel if someone ripped it apart? You’d experience some degree of anguish even though you know your stuffed animal can’t feel pain and doesn’t know what’s happening.

This is exactly what happens when humans interact with “social” or interactive robots that narrow the gap between machines and people by making sounds (Pleos’ whimpers contribute to people’s horror at their mistreatment), mimicking facial expressions, or reacting physically to their surroundings. And if you think only the bleeding hearts among us are susceptible to anthropomorphizing, think again.

Robots such as the TALON 3B find and defuse land mines in war zones. Often, this results in the robot blowing itself up, losing limbs and other parts. This is the purpose of such robots—better a machine lose an arm or a life than a human. But the officers and cadets working with the robots don’t necessarily feel this way. An Army colonel put an end to a military exercise in which a persistent TALON robot lost all but one leg because it was “inhumane.” Soldiers award robots with Purple Hearts and sometimes refuse to leave them behind. Military personnel develop close bonds when they depend on one another for survival; the same goes for the robots that help them.

When it comes to our emotional responses to robots, something in the human brain overrides reason. It doesn’t matter that the robot can’t feel or think. A group of German researchers conducted a study in which they showed subjects two sets of videos—one of an anonymous person interacting affectionately with a Pleo and another of that person interacting violently with it. The 40 subjects had an observable negative response to the negative videos, measured primarily via increased perspiration. The researchers repeated the experiment with three sets of videos: one of human-Pleo interaction, another of positive and negative interactions between two humans, and the last of a human interacting with a cardboard box. This time, they measured 14 subjects’ responses with an fMRI scanner. The results revealed the subjects’ positive feelings upon watching the human’s friendly interaction with the Pleo. While the subjects responded most negatively to the video of human on human violence, they also responded negatively to the Pleo-directed violence. Most interestingly, their frontal lobe and limbic systems responded similarly when they watched the negative treatment of Pleo and a human. In other words, humans respond with more empathy to other humans, but they also respond with observable empathy toward robots.

Another recent study conducted by Japan researchers confirms these findings by measuring humans’ responses to photos of intact human and robot hands and photos in which their hands are being cut with scissors or a knife. Researchers measured the participants’ responses with EEG scans, which indicated that the subjects experienced similar visceral responses to images of human and robot hands in painful situations.

Human empathy toward robots is perhaps the most compelling argument for robot rights or protections—a topic for a future column.

Such studies also help explain the existence of real-life Theodore Twomblys. People have already begun to develop deep feelings for robots, AI, love dolls, and video game or anime characters. This also means that robots and/or their human creators can leverage human empathy through emotional mimicry and bonding.  Researchers from Munich conducted a study demonstrating that when robots mirror human emotions by smiling back at them or matching their level of enthusiasm, humans are more disposed to help them complete a task.

Human emotion is a tricky beast. Some see it as a weakness, given that emotions can cause humans to act impulsively and irrationally. Others see it as a strength, as emotions such as fear have long played a crucial role in human survival. The ability to feel emotion is currently a crucial difference between humans and robots, yet that gap is shifting, if not closing, now that robots have become objects of our affection.