What your interactions with robots say about your character

Dr. Kate Darling, a Research Specialist at the MIT Media Lab
Dr. Kate Darling, a Research Specialist at the MIT Media Lab and a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center.
Courtesy of Kate Darling, photo taken by Flavia Schaub

NPR's Shankar Vedantam hosted his Hidden Brain podcast live at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 29.

He spoke with Kate Darling of MIT about how we interact with machines, and what her research tells us about empathy, intelligence, consciousness and the way humans relate to other humans.

Her research shows the way we treat robots (and animals, for that matter) has implications for the way we treat other human beings. Darling said the line we draw between humans and machines has more to do with consciousness than with intelligence.

"I think robots are the perfect mixture of something that we will very willingly treat with human qualities or lifelike qualities," Darling said.

Because robots can move and interact actively, humans have a tendency to give names to the machines in their lives and through that practice anthropomorphize them and even grow emotionally attached to them.

"It's a very difficult design challenge as well, because how do you create a devise that people want to use but don't like too much?" Darling said.

In a recent workshop Darling helped run, a group of people was introduced to robotic dinosaurs and instructed to name and play with them.

The group was then asked to destroy or torture the robots. But nobody did so until the scientists threatened to destroy all the machines.

The same wasn't true when the same experiment was attempted on a larger scale, with smaller, less cute robots. While some still refused to destroy them, others didn't hesitate. "We know now, or we have some indication that we can measure people's empathy using robots, which is pretty interesting," Darling said.

More from Kate Darling

To listen to their discussion, click the audio player above.

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