Us humans are emotional creatures. We can’t help it. We feel emotion toward both other beings, and material things too. This includes robots.
Yep, we have feelings for robots.
Before you disregard what I’m saying, I’m going to reach out to all those Star Wars fans out there. Have a quick think about R2-D2. We couldn’t help but fall in love with him; he was a great friend and nothing less than a hero. Luke, Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme all owe their life to R2-D2, so it’s understandable that we have feelings of compassion towards him.
The reality is, people react to emotion. R2-D2, although he was a droid, evoked this (even if it was through a series of beeping noises).
Not so fictional after all?
However, to reiterate this point let’s take a look at a study that was undertaken at Stanford University. It was apparent that artificial objects have the ability to evoke all kinds of emotion. The subjects in the experiment were asked to touch a humanoid robot in ‘intimate’ places. People’s reactions varied from arousal, discomfort and complete refusal.
It’s strange to think that a non-living, computerized being can be associated with ‘intimate body parts’, or in R2-D2’s case, a heroic friend. What can be deducted from this is that human characteristics influence our feelings toward robots. So much that even moral and ethical aspects come into play.
But wait, there’s more! We also can interpret feelings from geometric forms. Another study by Heider and Simmel in 1944 looked into interpersonal perceptions, specifically in relation to the attribution process when making judgments of others.
Subjects were shown a short video of a dot, two triangles and some lines before being asked what they thought they had just seen.
Many of the participants went as far to describe the scene as a family drama where the child and mother leave the father at home. Whether you interpret it or not, there is clearly a difference between rational perception and emotional interpretation.
We all have feelings toward objects to some degree, and the term for this phenomenon is anthropomorphism. Big word huh. It is basically the attribution of human characteristics to a non-human object. The phenomenon is occurring everyday: it could be celebrating your dog’s birthday by giving him an extra tasty bone, or giving your car a name.
However, it is also why Amazon’s Alexa is called Alexa, and why Apple’s Siri is called Siri, it promotes ease of use and experience in a way that is familiar to us humans.
Anthropomorphism is a very normal occurrence. It is the way we understand the world and gives us a means to understand an unfamiliar environment or object in a familiar way.
What is the moral of this story?
People are people. Our primary reaction is emotion and we react to things based on feeling. Whether that thing is a Star Wars character or a compilation of shapes, it doesn’t matter. This understanding is essential in the artificial communication sphere, especially in the current age of digital technology.
When developing interactive technologies, it is extremely important to reason using emotion.
In order for you to successfully develop digital communication, you must therefore have a sufficient empathetic capacity. You have to be able to engage with the user or consumer first at an emotional level before coming up with the right technical solution. If you don’t do that, the communication will be less effective and it will be more difficult to build trust.