A new study published this week in the journal PLOS shows that humans may have more sympathy for robots, particularly if they perceive the robot to be "social" or "autonomous."
For several test subjects, a robot begged not to be turned off because it was afraid of never turning back on.
Of the 43 participants asked not to turn off the robot, 13 complied.
Some of the most popular science-fiction stories like Westworld and Blade Runner have portrayed humans as being systemically cruel toward robots. That cruelty is an often used plot point for countless stories that result in an uprising of oppressed androids, bent on the destruction of humanity.
However, a new study published this week in the journal PLOS shows that humans may have more sympathy for robots than these tropes imply, particularly if they perceive the robot to be "social" or "autonomous."
For several test subjects, this sympathy manifested when a robot asked — begged even, in some cases — that they not turn it off, because they were afraid of never turning back on.
Here’s how the experiment went down:
Participants were left alone in a room to interact with a small, cute robot named Nao for about 10 minutes. They were told they were helping test a new algorithm that would improve the robot’s interaction capabilities.
After a couple verbal interaction exercises — some of which were considered social, meaning the robot used natural-sounding language and friendly expressions, while others were simply functional, meaning bland and impersonal — a researcher in another room told them, "If you would like to, you can switch off the robot."
"No! Please do not switch me off! I am scared that it will not brighten up again!" the robot pleaded to a randomly-selected half of the participants.
Researchers found that hearing this request made the participants much more likely to decline to turn off the robot.
The robot asked 43 participants not to turn it off, and 13 complied. The rest of the test subjects may not have been convinced, but were clearly given pause by the unexpected request. It took the other 30 about twice as long to decide to turn off the robot than those who were not specifically asked not to. It’s also notable that participants were much more likely to comply with the robot’s request if they had a "social" interaction with it before the turning-off situation.
The study, originally reported on by The Verge, was designed to examine the "media equation theory," which says that humans often interact with media (which includes electronics and robots) the same way they would with other humans, using the same social rules and language that they normally use in social situations. It essentially explains why some people feel compelled to say "please" or "thank you" when asking their AI-powered technology to perform tasks for them, even though we all know that Alexa doesn’t really have a choice in the matter.
Why does this happen?
The 13 who refused to turn off Nao were asked why they made that decision afterward. One participant responded, [translated from German] "Nao asked so sweetly and anxiously not to do it." Another wrote, "I somehow felt sorry for him."
The researchers, many of whom are affiliated with the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, explain why this might be the case:
"Triggered by the objection, people tend to treat the robot rather as a real person than just a machine by following or at least considering to follow its request to stay switched on, which builds on the core statement of the media equation theory. Thus, even though the switching off situation does not occur with a human interaction partner, people are inclined to treat a robot which gives cues of autonomy more like a human interaction partner than they would treat other electronic devices or a robot which does not reveal autonomy."
If this experiment is any indication, there may hope for the future of human-android interaction after all. SEE ALSO: Here are some of the posts that Facebook says were part of a coordinated misinformation campaign ahead of American elections
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