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Can you feel empathy for a robot?

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WEDNESDAY, April 24 (HealthDay News) -- A robot might tidy your kitchen some day, but how will you feel about the mechanical member of the household?

Researchers say people's empathy for robots can be similar to what they feel for other humans.

Functional MRI scans showed that volunteers had similar brain function when they saw images of people or robots receiving affection or being subjected to violence, according to a study scheduled for presentation in June at the International Communication Association's annual conference in London.

"One goal of current robotics research is to develop robotic companions that establish a long-term relationship with a human user, because robot companions can be useful and beneficial tools," study co-author Astrid Rosenthal-von der Putten, of the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany, said in an association news release.

"They could assist elderly people in daily tasks and enable them to live longer autonomously in their homes, help disabled people in their environments, or keep patients engaged during the rehabilitation process," said Rosenthal-von der Putten.

In one experiment, 40 participants watched videos of a small dinosaur-shaped robot that was treated in a violent or gentle manner. In a second experiment, 14 people watched videos showing a human, a robot and an inanimate object treated in a violent or affectionate way.

Affection toward either a robot or person triggered comparable brain function indicating similar emotional reactions. While the participants' brain function suggested concern for a robot or person subjected to abuse, differences in brain activity showed they felt more concern for the person.

Little is known about how people react emotionally to robots. Brain scans were used to assess the volunteers' feelings because people often have difficulty or find it strange to talk about their emotions regarding robots, the researchers explained.

But while a new technology is exciting at the beginning, the effect wears off, especially when it comes to tasks like repetitive exercise in rehabilitation, said Rosenthal-von der Putten. "The development and implementation of uniquely humanlike abilities in robots -- like theory of mind, emotion and empathy -- is considered to have the potential to solve this dilemma," the researcher explained.

Data and conclusions presented at meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

More information

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has more about empathy.

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