Babies treat ‘social robots’ like sentient beings

October 17, 2010

Ever the lover of robot news and human psychology, I couldn’t resist commenting on this article on Science Daily about a study that fooled infants into thinking robots and other inanimate objects were “psychological agents.”

Research published in the October/November issue of Neural Networks provides a clue as to how babies decide whether a new object, such as a robot, is sentient or an inanimate object. Four times as many babies who watched a robot interact socially with people were willing to learn from the robot than babies who did not see the interactions.

“Babies learn best through social interactions, but what makes something ‘social’ for a baby?” said Andrew Meltzoff, lead author of the paper and co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “It is not just what something looks like, but how it moves and interacts with others that gives it special meaning to the baby.”

Not only would babies follow adults in socializing with the robot but they’d even learn from it. Researchers would ask the robot questions in front of the baby and the robot, controlled by another researcher, would respond. For instance, a researcher would ask the robot where its tummy was and the robot would point to its torso. After completing a 90-second script, the researcher would leave the baby alone with the robot, which would continue to move its head slightly and beep. Most babies, after watching an adult socializing with the robot, would view it as a person, following its gaze, turning to see what it’s looking at.

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