Empathy with Military Robots?

US Navy 090207-N-9610C-007 A remote-controlled...

US Navy 090207-N-9610C-007 A remote-controlled robot used by Explosive Ordnance Disposal Expeditionary Support Unit (EODESU) 1 called (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Interwebz are buzzing with reports regarding the PhD work of Dr. Julie Carpenter at the College of Education at the University of Washington. She has interviewed Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD)  personnel who work with robots to clear dangerous explosives. These machines are very purpose-built for difficult terrain and manipulating particular types of objects.


Talon IV (QinetiQ)

Not very cute, not very pretty – and yet, according to Dr. Carpenter’s work, handlers may feel quite strongly about their machines. They might assign them gender, they give them names – and they feel not well when they are destroyed in the call of duty. Specifically, there appears to be a trend to attribute human traits to these machines (some more details here).

English: INDIAN HEAD, Md. (Feb. 26, 2009) Warr...

English: INDIAN HEAD, Md. (Feb. 26, 2009) Warren Tibbs, a robot operator for Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technical Division, Indian Head, Md., shows the many different robots that are developed on the base and used by EOD technicians and civilian police department SWAT team members. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jhi L. Scott/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I still have not read the thesis itself, as the news regarding this just broke, and I do not want to go into details regarding the potential military implications if the handlers of such machines feel empathy towards them – there is apparently a discussion already out there. Instead, I want to focus briefly on the importance of time spent and experience with machines and the development and expression of empathic sentiments and the implications for research on social relationships with robots.

Many studies on the uncanny valley, or others that deal with the relationship of humans and machines confront relatively unprepared participants with devices of various complexity in the laboratory, or laboratory-like contexts. Perhaps this is really not a great idea. Possibly, uncanny valley effects disappear quickly with machines that approach human perfection. This is an idea that Astrid Rosenthal von der Pütten, who is working on empathic responses to robots, proposed when we discussed such phenomena. Perhaps, the other side of the coin is that very non-human machines may become very close to us if we work with them day-in, day-out. If this is so, then we should take results of research that studies exclusively responses to unfamiliar stimuli with a grain of salt. With this I mean either responses of people who are generally unfamiliar with robots, or even with people who have some familiarity with robots but not a particular type of robot. I do not want to question the usefulness of such studies in general – in my own laboratory, for example, we are investigating responses to artificial entities of various kinds in the laboratory and measure behavioral, physiological, and subjective responses of student participants who have little experience with the types of stimuli we use. However, we and other researchers in this field should keep the influence of experience and familiarity in mind.

Repliee Q2. Taken at Index Osaka Note: The mod...

Repliee Q2. Taken at Index Osaka Note: The model of Repliee Q2 is probably same as Repliee Q1expo, Ayako Fujii, announcer of NHK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember how people responded first to cars, or the famous report of how people responded to early films of the brothers Lumiere? Apparently, people were shocked, scared, ran away (the extreme versions of this story are likely to be urban legend). These responses are difficult for us to imagine – so much have we gotten used to the highly mechanized and mediatized environments we grow up in. Possibly, if we would grow up in a robotized environment, there would be no odd sensation to almost-human machines and we might feel deeply for machines that are very much not humanoid. For me the fictional version of this is the relationship of the character Freeman Lowell played by Bruce Dern in the movie Silent Running with the three little robot drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie, As he spends more and more time with them, his emotional bond becomes stronger and stronger – and this means not just feeling warm and fuzzy, but displaying a whole range of emotions toward them and reacting very strongly to their actions.


Poster from the movie Silent Running, claiming fair use (does not detract from original work).