R2D2, I Feel Ya
Humans are increasingly exposed to robots in their daily lives, and new research shows people feel the same empathy for the bots as they would for another person.
Paramount Pictures Corporation
June 29, 2011 --
In the movie "Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon," Autobots, transforming robots from the planet Cybertron, work alongside humans to battle the Decepticons, a rival group of robots bent on destroying the universe. The latest Transformers installment may just be a work of fiction, but would real-life robots on Earth be up to the task of saving the planet from the threat of an overwhelming destructive force? Of course not, but that doesn't mean they won't get there one day. Until then, we present the next best thing in this slideshow of incredible real-life robots.
Alex Kossett and Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, U
We begin the slideshow with an actual real-life transforming robot. Although it doesn't tranform into a sentient, humanoid machine, this robot can transform from what appears to be an elaborate motorized rolling pin to a helicopter when the terrain starts to get rough.
Take a look at this flying robot in action here. BLOG: Rolling Robot Transforms into a Helicopter
What's more terrifying than a hungry, fully grown cheetah chasing you down? How about if it were made of metal? Meet CHEETAH, a robot designed by Boston Dynamics for one purpose: to hunt you down like an animal. Once built, this robot will be fast, agile and strong enough to chase down, catch and subdue even the fastest human runners. This robot is one of a line of prototypes known as "terror bots." An appropriate name, especially if you see this guy biting at your heels as you run full speed. BLOG: TERROR BOTS BEING DESIGNED TO HUNT YOU DOWN
If this robot reminds you of Scorponok from the "Transformers" film series, you wouldn't be far off. Designed by researchers at the University of Bielefeld, this advanced walking robot is based on a rather simple creature: an insect. HECTOR, short for Hexapod Cognitive autonomously Operating Robot, has six legs and elastic joints that allow its motions to mimic muscle movement. This construction allows the robot to navigate over uneven terrain. At a little more than three feet long and weighing in at 26 pounds, this robot probably won't be involved in any world domination schemes anytime soon. BLOG: HECTOR THE WALKING ROBOT INSPIRED BY INSECTS
Snake Robot to the Rescue
Cheetahs and insects aren't the only animals inspiring robotics' engineers. Mechanical snakes are also being designed to mimic their mechanical counterparts. Unlike CHEETAH, which is made to hunt you down, this snake robot, created by researchers at Georgia Tech Univeristy, is actually designed to come to the rescue. Their unique body shape allows them to burrow through uneven soil. With this unique feature, emergency responders could deploy these robots after a particularly devastating natural disaster, such as an earthquake, when victims are buried and out of reach. BLOG: SNAKE-LIKE ROBOT SWIMS TO THE RESCUE
Robots may not yet be able to conquer the Earth, but what about the wide world of sports? They're already playing soccer and tossing baseballs. Now it looks like they're competing in marathons. (Well, robot marathons anyway.) Last February, five bipedal robots ran a non-stop 26.2-mile race on a 100-meter indoor track in Osaka, Japan. But don't expect these machines to compete with humans anytime soon. Robovie-PC, the winner of the race, finished in just under 55 hours. BIG PIC: TOY-SIZED HUMANOID WINS ROBOT MARATHAN
Ingmar Posner, Oxford Mobile Robotics Group
No this robot can't run or jump or slither or swim. So what can it do? This machine, known as Marge, has a very different ability entirely: It can read -- and it can learn. Marge may just look like a Tonka truck underneath a coffee pot, but this machine is actually smart enough to read The New York Times and BBC Online. It is even a skilled editor and can identify and correct misspellings. And because Marge's brains are built in its software, not its hardware, this same programming could make its way into other devices, such as cell phones. BLOG: ROBOT CAN READ, LEARN LIKE A HUMAN
Can anyone really tell the difference between right and wrong? Well, this robot can. This robot's ethical code is based on a software program modeled on an approach to ethics developed in 1930 by Scottish philosopher David Ross. As a result, this robot is designed to take the moral high ground -- and will tell on you if you're doing something wrong. Sure this robot doesn't have the firepower of an Ironhide or a Starscream, but a judgmental expression and a jittery nod of disapproval can be just as damaging. BLOG: ROBOT MAKES ETHICAL DECISIONS
Meet Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot that could one day be your co-worker -- or even take your job. Yes, this robot has everything any employer looks for in a diligent worker: It's capable and tireless, and it doesn't ever need lunch or bathroom breaks. In fact, you'll never guess where this robot is currently employed: the International Space Station. Robonaut 2 is currently working along astronauts, helping with basic maintenance tasks, such as cleaning. DNEWS VIDEO: MEET 'ROBONAUT 2,' YOUR FUTURE CO-WORKER
Robonaut 2 isn't the only robot on the space station with a job. Dextre, the Canadian robot that lives outside the International Space Station, has been tasked with refueling satellites while in low-Earth orbit. The robot will also be capable of performing minor repairs. In other words, this robot is essentially a space mechanic. Although a gas-pumping robot may not seem like much, Dextre could pave the way for an entirely new industry for satellite servicing. NEWS: SPACE STATION ROBOT LANDS A JOB
From R2-D2 in "Star Wars" to Furby, robots can generate surprisingly humanlike feelings. Watching a robot being abused or cuddled has a similar effect on people to seeing those things done to a human, new research shows.
Humans are increasingly exposed to robots in their daily lives, but little is known about how these lifelike machines influence human emotions.
Feeling Bad for Bots
In two new studies, researchers sought to measure how people responded to robots on an emotional and neurological level. In the first study, volunteers were shown videos of a small dinosaur robot being treated affectionately or violently. In the affectionate video, humans hugged and tickled the robot, and in the violent video, they hit or dropped him. [5 Reasons to Fear Robots]
Scientists assessed people's levels of physiological excitation after watching the videos by recording their skin conductance, a measure of how well the skin conducts electricity. When a person is experiencing strong emotions, they sweat more, increasing skin conductance.
The volunteers reported feeling more negative emotions while watching the robot being abused. Meanwhile, the volunteers' skin conductance levels increased, showing they were more distressed.
In the second study, researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to visualize brain activity in the participants as they watched videos of humans and robots interacting. Again, participants were shown videos of a human, a robot, and, this time, an inanimate object being treated with affection or abuse.
In one video, for example, a man appears to beat up a woman, strangle her with a string and attempt to suffocate her with a plastic bag. In another, a person does the same things to the robot dinosaur.
Affectionate treatment of the robot and the human led to similar patterns of neural activity in regions in the brain's limbic system, where emotions are processed, fMRI scans showed. But the watchers' brains lit up more while seeing abusive treatment of the human than abuse of the robot, suggesting greater empathy for the human.
"We think that, in general, the robot stimuli elicit the same emotional processing as the human stimuli," said lead study author Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten of the University of Duisburg Essen, in Germany. Rosenthal-von der Pütten suspects that people still have greater empathy for humans than robots, as evidenced by the stronger effect of watching violence toward the human than the robot.
Still, the study only assessed people's immediate reactions to the emotional cues, Rosenthal-von der Pütten said. "We don't know what happens after the short term," she said.
That humans would show empathy for the robot is not surprising, because the bot looked and behaved like an animal, roboticist Alexander Reben, founder of the company BlabDroid, LLC and a research affiliate at MIT, told LiveScience. Reben, who was not involved in the recent study, himself builds small cardboard robots that tap into the human affinity for cute creatures.
Some people find the idea of humans empathizing with robots concerning. But Reben compared trends in robot development with breeding dogs for companionship. "We have been doing this for millennia," he said. "I think we're doing the same thing with robots."
Humans have been known to show empathy for robots in a variety of contexts. For instance, soldiers form bonds with robots on the battlefield. Other research suggests that humans feel more empathy for robots the more realistic they seem, but not if they're too humanlike.
As robots become more and more ubiquitous, understanding human-robot interactions will take on increasing importance, Rosenthal-von der Pütten said.
The new research will be presented in June at the International Communication Association Conference in London.
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