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Robot Mirrors Our Emotions To Be More Social

Researchers find that robots that mirror our emotional states can get a social advantage

2 min read
Robot Mirrors Our Emotions To Be More Social

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.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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