In the TedTalk “Why we have an emotional connection to robots,” Kate Darling argues that human biology hardwires us to project intent and life onto anything moving, thereby increasing our emotional attachment to robots.
After finding herself demonstrating kindness to a dinosaur robot, Darling’s research has centered around understanding the human tendency to form emotional connections to robots. In 2007, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. military was testing a robot that diffused land mines. The colonel in charge of the mission called off the experiment because he felt it too inhumane to watch the robot drag itself around after losing its limbs to land mines. Darling points out that this component of human robot interaction doesn’t just occur on battlefields. She uses the example of a Roomba vacuum. Owners of a Roomba feel compelled to name it or feel bad when it gets stuck under the couch. Darling and a colleague ran an experiment where they gave a baby dinosaur robot to groups of five people and asked them to play with it for about an hour. They then provided the group with a hammer and hatchet and told them to torture and kill the robot. All participants refused to do so.
I have certainly witnessed this emotional connection in my own life. I often find myself thanking Siri after she answers one of my questions. I wonder-how does this emotional connection to robots change their purpose in our life? Does it make us more eager to adopt new technologies or reluctant to let old ones go?
Later in the talk, Darling wonders whether robots can change people’s empathy. She asks “When we behave violently towards robots, specifically robots that are designed to mimic life, is that a healthy outlet for violent behavior or is that training our cruelty muscles?” I believe as robots evolve and begin to integrate even more into our daily lives, the tendency to treat them well will only increase.