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Question Your World: How Do You Feel About Robots?

Would you be happy if a robot gave you flowers? Would you be sad if you saw someone hurt a robot? Those are the types of questions that were on a recent German scientific survey, but why? Why do we need to understand how we feel about robotsListen to the latest Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

In 1739 Jacques de Vaucanson created what we believe is the very first robot, a wooden duck capable of digesting fake food. Not a lot came of that foul creation, but it did start to get people thinking about the relationship between us and other objects. This invention would slowly lead to the big question of how we humans feel about objects that function and work, but don’t have what we call ‘life’.

Now let's jump forward to modern day robotics. Consider the world around you for a moment. Nearly all aspects of our modern life are tied into algorithms and computational machines that allow us to function the way we want when we want. So, would we be the same without these machines? Also, do we rely on them and thus feel some sort of strange gratitude for them even if we don’t know it?

As technology paces ahead exponentially (according to Moore’s Law) we will see more inventions pop up more frequently that serve more tasks in our lives. A decade ago having your desktop and a cell phone and a television were vital necessities to keep up with contemporary communications. Today, however, one smart phone can in effect do the ‘jobs’ of those older machines and compact them into something that travels with you and fits in your pocket without very little trouble. So, how do you feel about your smart phone?

Those overarching questions have led to a recent study in Germany at the University of Duisburg Essen. Scientists were able to take groups of people and make them watch video clips of humans, robots, and inanimate objects being treated in several different ways. Some were given kind words and signs of affection where as others were put in angry situations and were harmed violently. Guess what? The subjects reacted very similarly to both the humans and the robots. Apparently, there was not very much concern over spoons and door wedges being treated unfairly. Our perception of robots fell into a similar category of reactions to flesh and blood.

This study is a pretty telling sign as to where our lives are headed in terms of merging the regular use of technology into our lives. The field of robotics has come a long way since the wooden duck was able to digest a pellet of food. The future of robotics has yet to reveal the multitude of tasks that our robotic counterparts may be able to provide for us.

As it stands, robots are used to help the elderly in many countries and have a great future for repetitive tasks that involve things like physical therapy. If robots can be programmed with more ‘human-like’ reactions then this could be a huge step forward in situations such as long term recoveries, physical therapy, and as a part of medical treatments that involve a lot of attention and motivation for human subjects.

Though the future for robotics is uncertain, the fact that this study happened is a sign that at least some people are starting to think about how the future could involve using technology to help us live life to its fullest. According to Moore’s Law the computational ability of our designed machines grows exponentially every 18 months. We build on top of what we know and understand. Perhaps the future will involve machines that elicit emotional reactions to help us motivate ourselves and enhance even more what it is to be human. 

Perhaps then we’ll finally have a reason to say Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!

And be sure to visit the "Robots + Us" exhibition that just opened at the Science Museum of Virginia.  Explore what differentiates humans and robots through hands-on activities. 

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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