In the Disney movie Wall•E, the titular character is a small work robot who spends 700 years on an uninhabitable Earth cleaning up the mess left behind by his human counterparts. During this time, Wall•E becomes a sentient being with a strong moral compass who feels sadness, joy, fear, love — the entire emotional spectrum. Film and television have portrayed a strong human/bond in myriad projects. But what does the future truly hold with regards to humans and robots.
Once limited to factories and labs, robots have branched out into new fields such as hospital care, law enforcement, entertainment, and even military battle. Given these new parameters, their coexistence with humans is inevitable and has given rise to the study of Human-Robot Interaction (HRI).
What Is HRI?
Essentially, HRI studies the interactions between humans and robots. It’s a connective discipline that intersects with engineering and social sciences such as social and cognitive psychology. As robots move from the factory to the home, HRI accepts there are far more complex social rules and interpersonal dynamics that impact what we expect from – and how we perceive – robots.
How Do We Feel About Robots?
“Robots are tools, but they are tools that sometimes hold meaning for people that interact with them,” Dr. Julie Carpenter, an expert on human-robot social interaction tells Parentology.
How we interact with robots depends primarily on our day-to-day proximity to them, as well as the features and characteristics that make them more humanoid than machine. Communication between a human and a robot can be separated into two general categories:
Remote interaction – The human and the robot are separated spatially and operated remotely (for example, the Mars Rover).
Proximate interactions – When humans and robots are co-located (for example, robotic assistants).
In proximate interactions “humans and robots interact as peers or companions,” Carpenter says. These interactions can include social, emotive and cognitive elements.
Appearance and Emotional Attachment
It seems the more recognizably human a robot looks, “the more we tend to attribute humanlike traits,” Carpenter says. We assign meaning to inanimate objects all the time; a special keepsake, a photo, baby clothes — these all stimulate an emotional response.
Bonding with a robot can prove useful in many caregiving industries, depending on the role of the robot and the context of the task, so long as the human subject understands they’re interacting with something non-human. Carpenter agrees. “It would be desirable for the user to be emotionally attached to a robot when it seems like it would be helpful and not damaging to the human.”
Anthropomorphizing something that only appears to have agency over itself can lead to confusion, loss or fear.
“What will be the outcome of the loss of the robot?” Carpenter asks. “Will it be similar to denting a bumper on a cherished car, where there’s frustration or anger, but no long-term distraction? Or, will a robot loss be similar to when we lose a pet? Could losing a robot ever be like losing a human we care about?”
Without setting boundaries and clear expectations for our interactions with robots, it will be easy to forget these machines only mimic human behavior in order to execute a specific program or task, and are “probably not healthy for most people to rely on … as a surrogate for a human-human shared relationship,” Carpenter says. “No matter how intelligent a robot becomes, it will always be in a place of rooted “robotness,” and can never completely understand the human experience.”
No Algorithm for Love, No Binary Code for Fear
While there is inherent value in the services they provide, robots can only be in the service of humans. Carpenter outlines that there’s a difference between having a “deep and meaningful familiarity with a robot’s abilities and constraints” and interacting with a robot as though it were actually human. While Wall•E was a sweet film about a robot that becomes self-aware, expecting anything more invested or reciprocal from a machine is perhaps another cautionary tale.
Human-Robot Interaction: Sources
Dr. Julie Carpenter
Science Direct: Human-Robot Interaction
IEEExplore: The psychology of human-robot interaction
Semantic Scholar: Psychological analysis on human-robot interaction
ResearchGate: Human-Robot Interaction – A Psychological Perspective
Forbes: Relationships with Robots: Good or Bad for Humans?