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Robots could someday ease our loneliness

by Mallika Rao
Feb 05, 2008

Lonely people often see pets and gadgets as having human qualities.

Social scientists at the University of Chicago and Harvard University found that the chronically lonely and people induced into loneliness are more likely to anthropomorphize -- or make human -- animal and and inanimate objects. 

This could confirm an assumption roboticists and artificial intelligence (AI) scientists have made for years – that humans can see objects as friends.

“One of the goals of AI from the early days was the notion of creating artificial presences that would actually be able to be there for people and help them in their lives,” said Kristian Hammond, co-director of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University.

If the loneliness study’s findings are any indication, that goal is aligned with human nature. 

“When you’re hungry, you seek out food,” said Nicholas Epley, associate professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Chicago business school, and a lead author of the study.  “When people are lonely, they make up people.”

Study participants were asked to describe animals and gadgets using a list of words given to them.  Those who were lonely favored adjectives like “compassionate” or “friendly” – qualifiers of typically human behavior – over objective descriptors like “active.”  Lonely people were also more likely to believe in God or to assign divine agency to objects and events.

“What’s interesting about the work by Epley and his colleagues is what it says about the human condition and just how much we need to love things,” said Wendi Gardner, a psychology professor at Northwestern.  “The fact that adults are able to attach to these imaginary friends says something profound.”

Robots that help out

The study comes at a time when sophisticated robots are entering mainstream use.  Toys like the Pleo – a baby camarosaurus dinosaur designed to express the spontaneous emotions and reactions a living dinosaur might have – require personalities in order to be entertaining.  But even functional products like the Clocky – an alarm clock programmed to jump off a nightstand and hide – benefit from being personable, says Clocky creator Gauri Nanda. 

“With really any product there’s sort of an emotional connection that actually makes it more valuable to the person,” she said.  Clocky’s success is partially due to its ability to endear itself to its owner as a pet might, she said.

The connection between a robot’s sociability and its effectiveness is well-documented.  Dieters who used Autom, a weight-loss coach robot designed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had more success than they did going it alone.  Autom relates emotionally to its owner, interacting energetically if daily diet goals are met, and sluggishly if not.

Similarly, the chronically lonely could someday accomplish tasks with robot companions they couldn’t do by themselves.

“The notion of this has been around for a long time,” said Gardner, whose work examines people's connections with media characters. “The genesis of our work came from looking at elderly shut-ins and their attachment to newscasters,” a phenomenon as old as television, she said. 

That newscaster role could someday be fulfilled by robots like the Nurse Bot, a robot designed to help the elderly with medical and daily tasks.

But before meaningful relationships between robots and humans can occur, much work has to be done, cautioned Ian Horswill, a computer science professor at Northwestern. 

“We’re still working on making robots move through a room without bumping into things,” he said.  “There are a lot of issues that need to get worked out before things like social cognition happen.”

And, he said, people may not jump at the prospect of having a robot as a friend.  “Relatively few people are going to go out to buy a robot because they’re thinking, ‘I’m lonely.’  On the other hand, they might buy a robot for other reasons and then become attached to it.”

Today, few robots combine functionality and emotional capability, Horswill said, but as the field continues to grow, that could soon change.  And the prospect should be exciting rather than threatening, he said.

“Nobody’s going to come out and say I want to make a system to replace humans, because nobody wants to replace humans.  But to help people who are lonely, to act as therapy, a lot of us are interested in that.”