Brain Scans Show Humans Feel for Robots

A show of affection or violence toward either robots or humans causes similar changes in the brain

4 min read
Photo of Pleo robot
Cause for Concern: Research subjects felt for a Pleo robot when it underwent abuse.
Photo: NOTCOT

Star Wars’ R2-D2 shows that a robot—even one that looks more like a trash can than a person—can make people laugh and cry. Now, in research to be presented at the International Communication Association conference in London, scientists have shown that when the human brain witnesses love for or violence against a robot, it reacts in much the same way as if the robot were human.

Engineers worldwide are developing robots to act as companions for people—for instance, to help the elderly at home or patients in hospitals. However, after the novelty of using a robot fades, people often feel less interested in using them. Scientists want to learn how to create more-engaging robots, but there has been little systematic research on how people react emotionally toward them.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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