• Dr. Timothy Smith

Would You Cry if Your Robot Died? Human-Robot Interactions

Girl with Teddy Bear

Photo Source: PxHere

Did you ever have a teddy bear as a friend? Many people become emotionally attached to things, even ascribing human qualities to those objects The strong expression of emotional attachment to objects emerges in very early childhood often with a stuffed animal, a doll, or a blanket. I remember having a plush dog named Morgan when I was very young that I could not fall asleep without. One day, our young St. Bernard, Hildie, ate Morgan, leaving only the red squeaker ball from Morgan’s nose and one of his legs, which I kept for some time after. The loss remains with me as a vague memory of the sadness of the loss of a friend.

Apparently, people do not end their attachment to stuffed animals with childhood. According to a survey of six thousand Britons conducted in 2010 by the hotel chain, Travelodge, “revealed 35% of adults admitted they sleep with their teddy because they found cuddling their bear comforting. Also, the calming feeling of a bear hug also helps them to de-stress after a hard day - which aids sleep.” (Travelodge.co.uk) Additionally, the survey revealed that males comprise 25% of adults who sleep with their teddy bears. Moreover, the press release from Travelodge quotes Dawn James, Arctophile and editor of Teddy Bear Times, “Teddy Bears represent happiness and security in childhood. They are the best friend that always listens and never criticizes. This is why so many adults hang on to their childhood bears because they see them as a lifelong friend.”

In light of the affection and powerful attachment people show for teddy bears, the connection they may feel to other objects, including robots, does not appear outlandish. In fact, marketers have known for years that giving objects some animating quality improves its appeal. In an article published in The Chicago Booth Review titled “Are You Looking at Me?”, Alice Walton notes, “Anthropomorphism—giving human characteristics to animals, objects, constellations, and other nonhuman things—is a natural and ancient human inclination. Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume wrote about a, “universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves”—a tendency, he argued, that stems from an intellectual urge to understand a frightening and erratic existence.”

The same human tendency to anthropomorphize objects and to become attached to them extends naturally to robots. Research by Dr. Julie Carpenter, Ph.D. while a graduate student at the University of Washington demonstrated a reluctance by soldiers to send bomb disposal robots into dangerous situations because they were worried about the safety of the robot. Military Tech Monitor excerpts her findings as, “Carpenter found that soldiers cared deeply for their robot comrades and would even host funerals for fallen bomb-defusing robots to help mitigate a range of real emotions experienced during grieving and loss. She even found that soldiers would take the robots fishing and 'let them hold the pole,' and they gave the bots nicknames like 'Scooby Doo' and 'Danny DeVito' to fit their distinct perceived personalities.”(miltechmonitor)

It does not take a stretch of the imagination to see how robots designed to appeal to and interact with humans, and to leverage the existing, powerful human capacity for anthropomorphizing objects would elicit strong emotional attachments from people. From the earliest age, people begin forming emotional attachments to objects such as stuffed animals like teddy bears. Research shows that over 30% of people carry their emotional attachments to teddy bears into adulthood. More generally, humans will anthropomorphize objects such as cars and robots. It may seem harmless and simply an aspect of the human experience, but what about delaying the decision of whether to use a bomb diffusing robot in a situation, resulting in making a situation dangerous to humans even more dangerous? Robot designed for specific purposes such bomb disposal, firefighting, and battlefield assistance needs to take into account human predilections for anthropomorphization to make them the best tools possible for their intended purposes. After all, people will morn the loss of things as friends and cry over the death of a robot. On the other side, this affection shows how people may develop this kind of affection towards robots designed for care and play.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.

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