Japanese researchers threatened to cut off a robot's finger to see if humans would care

Kent Hernandez / FUSION

Machines already occupy intimate places in our lives — and depending on whether software like Siri is functioning like we want it to, machines can often seem like friends or foes.

But do we actually care about our algorithmic companions? Researchers in Japan wanted to find out.


In a study published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers found that when humans saw images of a human-shaped robot hand that had been maimed, they felt empathy akin to when they saw images of actual human hands that were hurt.

Some of the images volunteers were shown
Measuring empathy for human and robot hand pain using electroencephalography

In a small experiment, researchers from Toyohashi University of Technology showed 15 volunteers 56 different color photographs of both a human and a robotic hand each being cut with a knife, as well as images of the hands with the knife held at a distance. Researchers measured the volunteers' empathetic neural responses to each scenario with an EEG. The neural responses researchers measured were similar when looking at images for both humans and robots.

The researchers attributed this to the human-like shape of the robot's hand, and suggested that further studies are needed that test, say, a robotic hand without fingers to see if it would elicit a similar response.


"Humans can attribute humanity to robots and feel their pain," they conclude. "Because the basic shape of the robot hand in the present study was the same as that of the human hand, the human participants may have been able to empathize with the robot hand."

Artificial intelligence researchers are pushing boundaries in teaching computers to understand and react to human emotion. Eventually, they hope to design computers that can convincingly seem to empathize with human emotion. That will no doubt make them seem even more "human" to us.


Over the past few years, there's been a lot of interest in figuring out how we respond to robots. In the future, when software may stand in for human jobs like teachers, our ability to empathize with them will be important to their basic function. In order to successfully integrate machines into many facets of society, humans will kind of need to care.

But already we are imagining machines as companions. A recent survey found that nearly 40 percent of people said they could imagine falling in love with their virtual assistant, a la the movie Her, and another quarter said that maybe they could. In China, millions turn to a Microsoft chatbot for a sympathetic ear.


The Japanese experiment was small, but it cements something increasingly true: machines are an ever-growing part of our emotional landscape.

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