Humans' love for robots may be hard-wired in the brain, studies say

Have you loved R2-D2 and C-3PO since you were a kid? Do you have a soft spot in your in your heart for WALL-E? Did you used to play with Furbies and care for a Tamagotchi digital pet? Can the sight of a Roomba roaming your living room bring a tender smile to your face?

Attention all you robot lovers: Scientists are here to tell you that your affection for these machines is normal. In fact, when we see people interacting with robots, our brains react in much the same way as when we see people interacting with each other.

German researchers from the University of Duisburg Essen and colleagues recruited 14 volunteers and put them in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. While they were in the fMRI scanner, they watched videos of a robot, a human and an inanimate object. In some cases, the subjects in the videos were being treated kindly; in others, they were abused.

Watching a robot being treated with affection prompted a similar pattern of brain activity in the volunteers as did watching a person being treated the same way. The researchers found that neurons were activated in parts of the brain that are part of the limbic system, which controls emotions (among other functions).

On the other hand, videos of robots being abused prompted less brain activity than videos of people being abused. The difference suggested that the study volunteers were more concerned about the people than the robots.

In another round of experiments, the researchers asked 40 volunteers to watch videos featuring a small robot in the shape of a dinosaur. The volunteers became more agitated when the robot was subjected to violence than when the robot was treated nicely.

It may seem like a trivial thing to study, but engineers are counting on robots to take on bigger roles in our lives – and the success of their efforts depends a great deal on whether people are able to bond with the machines.

For instance, researchers in Japan created a fuzzy baby harp seal roboto called Paro to serve as a companion to elderly people, such as those who live in nursing homes. As we reported in the Health section in 2011, nursing home residents became less stressed (as measured by the level of stress proteins in their urine) after they played with Paro. They also spent more time in common areas of the facility, interacting with other people and communicating more.

Engineers at USC’s Robotics Research Lab are working on a robot named Bandit to help children with autism learn to interact with others. A robot named KASPAR is serving a similar purpose at the University of Hertfordshire in England, as we reported in this Health section story.

The German researchers are trying to develop companion robots that could help senior citizens take care of daily tasks so that they can continue living independently in their own homes. Companion robots could also help people with disabilities live on their own.

“Our goal of current robotics research is to develop robotic companions that establish a long-term relationship with a human user, because robot companions can be useful and beneficial tools,” Astrid Rosenthal-van der Putten, one of the researchers from the University of Duisberg Essen, said in a statement.

Rosenthal-van der Putten and her colleagues will present their research findings in June at the International Communication Assn. Conference in London.

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