ROBOTS TURN KEY IN HUMAN RELATIONS
Given the proper stimulus and behaviour, humans are able to form relationships with just about anything - even with robots! It's becoming more common to have robots sub in for humans to do dirty or sometimes dangerous work. But researchers are finding that in some cases, people have started to treat robots like pets, friends, or even as an extension of themselves. That raises the question, if a soldier attaches human or animal-like characteristics to a field robot, can it affect how they use the robot? Julie Carpenter from the University of Washington interviewed highly trained soldiers in the US who use robots to disarm explosives – about how they feel about the robots they work with every day. Part of her research involved determining if the relationship these soldiers have with field robots could affect their decision-making ability and mission outcomes. Soldiers told her that attachment to their robots didn't affect their performance, yet acknowledged they felt a range of emotions such as frustration, anger and even sadness when their field robot was destroyed. The soldiers rely on robots to detect, inspect and sometimes disarm explosives, and to do advance scouting and reconnaissance. Some robot operators saw their robots as an extension of themselves and felt frustrated with technical limitations or mechanical issues because it reflected badly on them. Researchers have previously documented just how attached people can get to inanimate objects, be it a car or a child's teddy bear. While the personnel in Carpenter's study all defined a robot as a mechanical tool, they also often anthropomorphised them, assigning robots human or animal-like attributes, including gender, and displayed a kind of empathy toward the machines. "They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet," Carpenter said. Many of the soldiers she talked to named their robots, usually after a celebrity or current wife or girlfriend. Some even painted the robot's name on the side. Some soldiers told Carpenter their first reaction to a robot being blown up was anger at losing an expensive piece of equipment, but some also described a feeling of loss. "They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool, but then they would add 'poor little guy,' or they'd say they had a funeral for it," Carpenter said. Carpenter wonders how that human or animal-like look robots will affect soldiers' ability to make rational decisions, especially if a soldier begins to treat the robot with affection akin to a pet or partner.