President Harry S. Truman is reputed to have said “If you need a friend in Washington, get a dog!” Apparently having a human friend and living in Washington is a contradiction in terms. Current political news tends to confirm that! But owning a dog is no longer the only way to to gain the tension reducing benefits of friendship.
Robotic engineers have developed an emotional robot. Aldebaran’s Pepper Robot is programmed to respond to evidence of human emotions like laughter, tears, and long faces. This programming allows Pepper to develop an attachment to the robot’s--for lack of a better term--“significant human.” Pepper then reacts to its significant human’s emotional signals in the way that that particular human has shown in previous similar situations he wants the robot to respond to effect a reduction in tension. At first, presumably, the significant human must tell the robot what reactions he prefers in various emotional situations; which is, after all, not all that different from developing a well-functioning human relationship. Much as we would like our significant other to know what we need emotionally without being told, it rarely happens. Spouses are particularly difficult to program.
Consider, for example, a significant human who has suffered a loss and is sad: he may want the robot to sing a happy tune and act foolishly in an attempt to make him laugh and feel better. Or, instead of trying to make it’s significant human feel better, Pepper might know from previous sad moments with this guy that what this human really wishes is a sympathetic shoulder to cry on; misery, it is said, loves company. And then of course there is the odd fellow whose only path back to happiness is found in making others unhappy. For this miscreant, punching Pepper is less fraught with danger than slapping the wife or kicking the dog. But is it as emotionally satisfying and tension reducing for the human involved?
Yes, robots can be programmed to respond to evidence of human emotions. The question before us then is this: are humans programmed, or evolutionarily hardwired, to respond to robots? Will the fact that a robot is suffering along with us make us feel any better? It’s well known that the presence of dogs and cats and other animals make life bearable for many lonely people. But robots? We’ve had ages untold to forge a bond with our fellow silicon beings; robots, on the other hand, are a new phenomenon.
For those few of us who have the time and interest to worry about this question, a team of Japanese researchers recently provided us with an answer in the affirmative. Using brain scans of 15 individuals being shown 56 pictures of robotic and human hands in close contact with a knife or pair of scissors, researchers concluded that human beings can feel empathy with robots in painful situations. Apparently the study also showed the female of our species more inclined to feel empathy in these situations than the male. No surprise there! It's also good to know that this same study indicated that while cutting a robotic hand created digital evidence of empathy on the scans, the empathy signals proved stronger in those cases where a human hand was endangered!
President Truman would be so pleased!