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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An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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