SCIENCE
11/03/2015 02:56 pm ET

Humans Feel Empathy For Robots, Scientists Find

Researchers in Japan discover neurological evidence that we empathize with robots "in pain."
Researchers in Japan are studying whether humans can feel empathy for robots.
Marcelo Santos via Getty Images
Researchers in Japan are studying whether humans can feel empathy for robots.

The ability to feel empathy toward others is supposed to be an innate human ability. But when we refer to "others," does that include robots? New research suggests it does.

study from Japanpublished on Nov. 3 in the journal Scientific Reports, offers new neurophysiological evidence that humans can have an empathetic reaction to humanoid robots -- and represents a major step toward understanding how we interact with them.

For the study, a group of psychologists and engineers from Toyohashi University of Technology and Kyoto University analyzed how the brains of 15 healthy adults reacted to seeing human-like robots "in pain." The study results are preliminary, due to the small sample size.

Researchers monitored electrical activity in the participants' brains through electroencephalography, or EEG, as the research subjects viewed various images of humans or robots in painful and non-painful situations. Some examples of those images can be seen below.

Examples of the painful and non-painful images that researchers used in the study.
Scientific Reports
Examples of the painful and non-painful images that researchers used in the study.

The researchers found that parts of the participants' brains associated with empathy were active when they viewed both humans and robots in painful situations. However, the EEG results revealed that their brains responded slightly more slowly to the robot images.

"This process [of showing empathy for robots] takes ... 350 milliseconds or more to recognize the situation and affect our cognition or consciousness," said Michiteru Kitazaki, a cognitive neuroscientist at Toyohashi and a co-author of the study, in an email to The Huffington Post. Thus, Kitazaki explained, the participants did not seem to experience the same "contagious or automatic empathy" toward robots that they felt toward humans.

The researchers concluded that we seem to empathize with humanoid robots in a way that is similar to how we empathize with humans, but our response toward robots may be somewhat weaker because we can't immediately put ourselves in a robot's place. 

"This could mean that we only show empathy towards a robot once we classify it as something similar to an animate creature," Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England, told Al Jazeera America. "This is a very important start to our understanding of empathy towards inanimate objects."

One day, scientists may be able to create robots specially designed to trigger empathy -- a helpful quality for robots to possess if they help or interact with humans.

"I think the future society including human and robots should be good -- it's good if human and robots are prosocial," Kitazaki said. "Empathy with robot as well as human others may facilitate prosocial behaviors."

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