Films like Steven Spielberg's A.I. have challenged us to think about the nature of human empathy when applied to a non-living thing such as a humanoid robot. But now a new study indicates that, much like the parents in the aforementioned film, humans can and will form emotional attachments to robots.
Using fMRI scans, researchers at the University of Duisburg Essen have discovered that humans do, in fact, have emotional responses to how robots are treated. In the study, 14 participants were shown a video of various interactions with a human, a small robot dinosaur, and an inanimate object. The interactions showed each target being treated in a number of different ways, from violent behavior to affectionate behavior. Based on the fMRI scans, the participants' emotional responses to the treatment of humans closely mirrored their reactions to the good or bad treatment of the robot.
Explaining the goal of the study, lead researcher Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten said:
"One 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. They could assist elderly people in daily tasks and enable them to live longer autonomously in their homes, help disabled people in their environments, or keep patients engaged during the rehabilitation process."
So while some visions of the future show us metallic androids working as human companions, based on this study, it seems far more likely that most robots in the future will be designed to mimic organic beings in order to smooth the path to interaction. You can test your own initial affinity for robot empathy by taking a look at the robot dinosaur video used in the study below.