We all have that friend: The one who understandingly pats us on the back when we feel down, or shares our excitement when we're brimming with joy. They share our frowns when we've been wronged, and say "I've been there" when we confess our worries. Psychologists have long known that this kind of empathy is an important social construct for building relationships, and now researchers are testing whether it can bring us closer to robots, too.
In a study presented at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems last month, Barbara Gonsior of Technische Universität München examined whether the effects of emotional mirroring can be extended to our future robot partners.
In the video below, the robot head Eddie asks a person, "How are you?" Then, no matter the human's answer, Eddie replies, "Me too!" It's a powerful phrase that anyone who's been on a first date knows gives extra brownie points. Eddie, controlled by a behind-the-scenes researcher, then plays a game while adapting its voice and facial emotion to the (self-reported) mood of the user.
After the interaction, the robot asks the human to label pictures, as many as they would like. It's a purposely boring task that could be left at any time. Results showed that participants labeled 65 percent more pictures when the robot adapted to the human's mood than when it didn't.
Some might call it unethical for a robot to "pretend" to have the same emotions as a human. If the robot doesn't actually have emotions, is it "lying" when it says "me too?” Is this a kind of social manipulation? But on the other hand, does it matter? Who would want a robot that always acts glum when you're in a good mood, or obliviously happy when you're feeling down? A little bit of empathy is important in our society, and this study suggests that robots that adapt to our moods will actually have a social advantage.
"An Emotional Adaption Approach To Increase Helpfulness Towards a Robot" by Barbara Gonsior, Stefan Sosnowski, Malte Buß, Dirk Wollherr, and Kolja Kühnlenz from Technische Universität München was presented at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vilamoura, Portugal.