Empathy Toward Robots Could Impact Battlezones

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The more robots become embedded in human society as toys and workers, the more people treat them like pets, friends or even as an extension of themselves. For soldiers who rely more and more on battlefield robots, researchers wondered: If a soldier attaches human or animal-like characteristics to these machines, could they care too much about the robot to send it onto a dangerous battlefield?

The answer to that question could help inform future robot design and human-robot training.

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Julie Carpenter, who recently completed her doctorate in education from the University of Washington, wanted to find out, so she interviewed 23 highly trained soldiers in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. She wanted to know if a soldier’s relationship with the small, tank-like robots could affect their decision-making ability and possibly compromise a mission.

Even though soldiers unanimously used the word “tool” or “mechanical” to describe robots in interviews and questionnaires, Carpenter found that many soldiers anthropomorphized the robots. The robots were assigned a male or female pronoun or named Sergeant So-and-So or after a celebrity. Because of the male-dominated environment, robots were often named after a girlfriend or wife. Soldiers posed with robots in photos and a mock funeral was even performed for one robot that was blown up beyond repair.

“It was pretty consistent, the series of emotions that soldiers would go through when a robot was disabled beyond repair -- anger, frustration and sadness for a sense of loss,” Carpenter told Discovery News.

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“The sense of loss was more complicated,” Carpenter said. “They had trouble verbalizing that emotion. And I might add, this is a very verbal group of people.”

Ultimately, Carpenter came away with the sense that a soldier's relationship with a robot did not compromise judgment on the battlefield. She said soldiers were too keenly aware of robots' capabilities and limitations and were not deluded into thinking they were human. She observed that soldiers never quite crossed that line.

"These people are so highly trained that it's very true that is does not affect them," Carpenter said. "My concern is that future robots are going to be developed with different shapes, abilities and take on different roles."