Robots Can Fill Humans’ Emotional Needs, Israeli Study Shows
In the movie “Her”, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson portray a human being and a robot who develop an intimate, emotional relationship. But can intimacy between humans and robots actually happen? According to new Israeli research, some robots do in fact generate strong emotional responses in the people they interact with.
In a new study by IDC Herzliya researchers, participants told a personal event to a small desktop robot. For 50 percent of the participants, the robot was responsive and supportive of their emotional needs, using gestures and on-screen text. The other 50 percent were met with an unresponsive robot.
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The people who interacted with a responsive robot had more desire to use the robot as a companion in stressful situations, like visiting the dentist, and their body language exhibited more emotion towards the robot, like leaning in, smiling, and having “eye contact.”
Moreover, when participants had to undergo a stress-generating task (introducing oneself to potential romantic partners) after interacting with the robot, the participants who interacted with the responsive robot had improved self-perception.
“Our study suggests that the way a robot responds to a person can evoke some of the same feelings and behaviors that occur when the response comes from another human,” IDC’s Dr. Guy Hoffman, a world-renowned robotics expert who co-authored the study, tells NoCamels.
This means that people can find robots compelling and respond to them in ways in which they typically respond to social partners, for example seeking the robot’s psychological proximity through their body language. In addition, people can leverage responsive social interactions with a robot to become more confident and appealing to romantic partners.
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Overall, the study indicates that a responsive robot could be reassuring and compelling enough to build a sense of security that then leads to better functioning under threatening circumstances.
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“This can have outcomes on how robot developers will design a robot’s response to their users, in order to gain these kinds of social and emotional benefits,” Hoffman explained.
For example, when designing a robot that listens to a patient in a hospital, the robot’s behavior can be programmed to make the person feel more secure and confident.
However, films like “Her” and “Ex Machina” paint “a fictitious, distorted and exaggerated picture,” Hoffman says. “People are not, and will not be confused about the nature of the entity they are interacting with.”
Since manufactured objects (including food, clothes and cars) are known to have emotional effects on some people, humans might also “get attached to their robots, enjoy their company, and feel less lonely while interacting with them,” IDC’s Prof. Gurit E. Birnbaum, the study’s co-author, tells NoCamels.
Still, “most people do not blur the line between their relationships with other humans and with objects,” Hoffman says. “Similarly, even when robots will respond in ways that affect people’s wellbeing, it will be clear to them that they are interacting with an object, and I sincerely doubt many will fall in love with a robot or artificial intelligence software.”
The research was conducted by Prof. Gurit E. Birnbaum, Dr. Guy Hoffman, and Dr. Moran Mizrahi of Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, along with Prof. Harry T. Reis of the University of Rochester, Dr. Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern University, and Omri Sass of Cornell Tech. It was recently published in the scholarly journal Computers in Human Behavior.
Photos: IDC Herzliya, Her, Honda, Kobi Zholtack