Study Reveals Chimpanzees' Curiosity about Robots

Chimpanzees and humans are similar in many ways, and one of them is an interest in robots

2 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Study Reveals Chimpanzees' Curiosity about Robots
They like robots, too.

The interactions between animals and robots is always fascinating, and generally, the more intelligent the animal, the more interesting the interaction. Researchers at the University of Portsmouth tried giving chimpanzees a robotic doll to see how they'd react, and the result was strikingly similar to humans.

Humans understand (mostly) that robots aren't alive, but that doesn't keep us from interacting with them in the same way that we'd interact with other living things. We look them in the eye, we talk to them, we respond to their movements, and we can even form emotional bonds with them.

Working with chimpanzees from Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, researchers from the University of Portsmouth's Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology used a robot doll [pictured left] to test interactions with the animals. Called Robota, the doll was developed at EPFL's Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory, led by Prof. Aude Billard. It has a moving head and moving arms, and could make chimpanzee noises from a speaker in its chest. First, the chimps were shown humans interacting with the doll, and then they were given a chance to meet it themselves. Lead researcher Dr. Marina Davila-Ross describes what happened:

“Some of the chimps gave the robot toys and other objects and demonstrated an active interest in communicating. This kind of behaviour helps to promote social interactions and friendships. But there were notable differences in how the chimps behaved. Some chimps, for instance, seemed not interested in interacting with the robot and turned away as soon as they saw it."

The robot was able to imitate motions made by the chimps, which they immediately recognized and responded to, since imitation is an important part of social bonding. When the robot made more human-like movements, however, the chimps were significantly less interested. The reason that it's important to use a robot (instead of a human) in this research context is that you have complete control over the experiment, and through testing, it may eventually be possible to figure out what specific sounds and movements are used by chimps to (say) make friends with one another.

“In our other studies we have found that humans will also react to robots in ways which suggest a willingness to communicate, even though they know the robots are not real. It’s a demonstration of the basic human desire to communicate and it appears that chimpanzees share this readiness to communicate with others.”

Photos: Manoj Shah/Getty Images (top); Marina Davila-Ross/University of Portsmouth (Robota)

UoP ] via [ Ars Technica ]

The Conversation (0)