Artificial empathy

More than 100 million robots with social skills will populate the planet by 2020, according to a research study by Tractica. While machine-to-machine communication is based on tested principles, the growing study of social interaction between humans and robots draws on developments in our understanding of empathy. What will our relationship be like with these domestic robots which are about to invade our day-to-day lives? “We can compare it to our relationship with pets, which is complex, emotional and relatively thankless,” says Paul Dumouchel, a Canadian research professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan.

The philosopher has recently published Vivre avec les robots (Living with robots) co-written with his colleague Luisa Damiano from the University of Messina in Italy. The book is based on the assumption that emotions are essentially a product of social interaction with others. “Not everyone agrees with that hypothesis,” he says. “But we think it’s the key to designing empathetic robots. And research on social robotics is now moving in that direction.”

The researcher closely studies experiments that confront humans and robots with unexpected situations. “I think robots will teach us more about ourselves and our behaviours,” Dumouchel says. “Look at what happened with hitchBOT. The little hitch-hiking robot crossed Canada and travelled through Germany alone without any trouble. But he spent just two weeks in the United States before being decapitated by vandals. That tells us something about the United States, not just about robots!”