Empathy with robots – science fiction or reality?

A number of popular videos made available by Boston Dynamics (a Google company) has shown different aspects of the potential of bipedal and quadrupedal robots to move around in rough terrain, and to carry out complex tasks. The behavior of the robots is strangely natural, even though they are clearly man-made mechanical contraptions.

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In a recent interview given at Disrupt SF, Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert put the emphasis on making the robots friendlier. Being around a 250 pound robot that can move very fast may be very dangerous to humans, and the company is creating smaller and friendlier robots that can move around safely inside peoples houses.

This means that this robots can have many more applications, other than military ones. They may serve as butlers, servants or even as pets.

It is hard to predict what sort of emotional relationship these robots may eventually become able to create with their owners. Their animal-like behavior makes them almost likeable to us, despite their obviously mechanic appearance.

In some of these videos, humans intervene to make the jobs harder for the robots, kicking them, and moving things around in a way that looks frustrating to the robots. To many viewers, this may seem to amount to acts of actual robot cruelty, since the robots seem to become sad and frustrated. You can see some of those images around minute 3 of the video above, made available by TechCrunch and Boston Dynamics or in the (fake) commercial below.

Our ideas that robots and machines don’t have feelings may be challenged in the near future, when human or animal-like mechanical creatures become common. After all, extensive emotional attachment to Roombas robotic vacuum cleaners is nothing new!

Videos made available by TechCrunch and Boston Dynamics.

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1 thought on “Empathy with robots – science fiction or reality?”

  1. Totally taking this “out of my… back”, but it doesn’t seem that farfetched.

    Humans tend (fortunately) to empathize with… “stuff”. And by stuff I mean other humans, animals, etc. And that is independent of the medium. I feel empathy for a character in a book, or a little animal left alone in the jungle after having his parents killed (damn you, National Geographic).

    It is only normal that as more robots present a behavior which resembles that of animals or humans, the more “we” are prone to feel “the connection”. And I’m talking about behavior and not “the look of the thingy” (meaning I believe the uncanny valley applies here).

    About the videos, I’ll sure would like to see those “robot-bullies” trying that with a Terminator (whichever model).

    Like

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