Why Humans Love Robots

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The humanoid robot ROBOY taps into an age-long relationship between humans and automatons.
REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Psychologists have been scratching their heads for years to try and fathom why humans are able to attach an emotional presence to mere machines. It partly boils down to vanity; we like our own reflection.

At an art fair recently, my friend Rose fell in love with a robot. The installation in question was a tall, dark mash of technological parts. It bore a loudspeaker for a head, its eyes formed out of the speaker cones. It beckoned us with arms built from skinny windscreen wipers. The abdomen was a slim podium that had a CD player attached to form the robot's chest. Rose has since christened the creation 'Schubert,' finding herself endeared to it by the way it appeared to interact with her, and how it seemed to fix her in its wide-eyed gaze.

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Her attraction to that robot, however superfluous, taps into an age-long relationship between humans and automatons. For centuries, we've been shaping technology into something that makes us feel something, infusing our creations with aesthetic qualities that build up their personality. The purpose and impact of this endeavor? That’s something that has tickled psychologists for years.

Stories of automatons have been pervasive since Grecian times, in mythologies that described armies of robot-like servants. Then came one ancient Greek engineer named Ctesibius who built water-powered clocks, decorated with little figurines in the shape of people, birds, and bells that seemed to move around unaided. In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci penned the plan for a mechanical knight, though he appears to have never actually built this moving giant. And in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Japanese became renowned for their karakuri, courteous, exquisitely decorated dolls that were mechanized by a system of pulleys and weights to perform tricks independently, like serving tea, or writing letters for show.

That's merely a smattering, but it proves that robots, defined loosely as autonomous machines, are well steeped in history. "Hundreds of years ago, mechanical toys -- before the invention of the word ‘robot’ itself -- elicited the same emotion of excitement and wonder from the audience, as the modern robot," says Alexander Libin, a psychosocial scientist and scientific director of Simulation Education Research at the MedStar Health Research Institute.

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And therein lies the divide. Today we build purely functional automatons, designed for military work, industrial service, or research tasks; and then there’s the murkier set we create, the social robots that we're still trying to figure out. They leave a trail of entertainment in their wake, but increasingly we use social bots to enrich other aspects of our lives. These are the robots we fit with all the trappings of humanity -- they tend to look more human, sound more like us, and behave like people do. Take C-3PO, the beloved, bumbling robot from the Star Wars films of yesteryear. Other creations are not human necessarily, but are built to be recognizable as animals, for instance -- like the cat designed as a pet companion, or an endearing dinosaur robot built to test people’s sense of empathy toward machines.

It's this "social robot" group that psychologists find intriguing, because through their interactive role with us, as entertainers, educators, assisters, and companions, these specimens provide a way of measuring human behavior. But why do like to see ourselves mirrored in the things that we invent?

That question has spawned a whole division of research called robopsychology, which Libin and his research partner and wife, Elena Libin, see as the study of compatibility between humans and artificial creatures.