Empathy and sociability are hot topics for the people who build and study robots–although they sometimes seem to miss certain crucial social dynamics when talking about robotic applications.
"The study of human relationships has begun to uncover some of their key features," writes Billy Lee, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, in the December 2006 issue of Connection Science. "Such relational processes offer insights for the design of people-oriented androids."
Drawing heavily on recent discoveries about mirror neurons that provide "a neural bridge between the actions of self and of others," Lee argues understanding empathy is key to building androids who will be capable of "going beyond the self." An empathic android, he writes, "would qualify as a moral being."
Lee showed film clips to 70 women and 64 men of actors presenting authentic or fake autobiographical speeches, in order to understand what conditions cultivated empathy, trust, and intimacy. At the end of the clip, the women and men were asked to decide whether the actors were telling the truth or not. Participants were also asked if they would let that person comfort them if they were upset and if they would go to the person if they were crying.
The result: He found that for both men and women, female actors were "much more likley to be given comfort and to have comfort accepted from them." From this one experiment, Lee concludes:
Women appear to be the gatekeepers of intimacy…If androids are to substitute for the intimacy function of humans, the android body must be equipped with nurturing features associated with the female form. Some of these are physical, others psychological…
It is perhaps no accident that people are more able to feel connected with women than with men. Every person was once connected physically, via the umbilical cord, to a woman, and every person has been held and incubated by a woman's body…Androids designed for a caregiving role should therefore replicate the female form or be able to invoke the feminine archetype.
If true, Billy Lee's study raises tough questions about gender roles. He doesn't question existing gender roles or power relations, or how those have been constructed. He implies that women should automatically be assigned to caregiving roles.
But he also raises an issue that I hadn't thought about: Are our machines to be built according to gender stereotypes and inequalities? Of course, they already are, in many respects: look at many of the robotic dolls now being produced for both boys and girls, not to mention countless digital avatars, that push specific messages about gender identity, for example men as warriors and women as dainty princesses.
It's important to note that while many robot builders are investigating the effects of embodiment on human-robot interaction, not everyone buys Lee's logic. "We have seen that people react to robots in similar ways that they do to humans," says Cory D. Kidd of the Robotics Life Group in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. "For example, the work of Cliff Nass and colleagues at Stanford has repeatedly shown people exhibiting social responses to various forms of technology and showing similar biases to those shown with humans, such as deferring more to a male voice and finding a female voice more reassuring."
But Kidd doesn't think that a human-like appearance — and, presumably, gender stereotypes — are necessary for machines to interact with humans. "While I believe that we can greatly build on and take advantage of characteristics of human interaction," he told me, "I don't think that our robots need to go so far in being human-like in appearance and action. If you look at the work coming out of our lab at MIT, you'll see that none of the robots are humanoid. Rather they are creature-like or suggestive of a human form in some ways — anthropomorphizable, but not androids."
What might robotics tell us about human beings?
"It is important to recognize that humans are a profoundly social species," writes Cynthia Breazeal, director of the MIT Media Lab, where she and her colleagues built Kismet (pictured), the world's first empathic robot. Kwan Min Lee of the University of Southern California explained to me that the design of MIT Kismet's social brain was influenced by University of Cambridge psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen's work on autism, in which he identified four brain modules—Intentionality Detector, Eye Direction Detector, Shared Attention Mechanism, and Theory of Mind Mechanism—needed for everyday social interaction. "Kismet was a breakthrough in the design of social robots in that unlike previous robots, it was the first robot equipped with those modules needed for normal human social interaction," says Lee (no relation to Billy Lee).
For now, robotics is drawing on research into human social and emotional intelligence, but Lee believes that one day the knowledge will flow in the other direction. "In the future, I believe studies on social robots will give us many new insights on the nature of our social brain," says Lee. "Social robots can be used as an excellent simulation tool to investigate the nature of human emotion, empathy, and social interaction."