Can you empathize with a robot? I commented earlier on Boxie, a cardboard robot able to extract stories and otherwise elicit emotional responses from people. In an article published today on the New York Times website, Maggie Koerth-Baker elaborates on the topic. In her article, titled “How Robots Can Trick You Into Loving Them,” she writes, “I like to think of my Roomba as cute and industrious. He makes noises while he cleans that make me feel as if he’s communicating with me, which contributes to the fact that I have assigned him a sex.”

On a more serious note, she comments on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Robosimian emergency responder. And perhaps even more important than its ability to maneuver, she writes, will be its ability to form “some sort of bond with the EMTs and first responders who might use it.”

Koerth-Baker elaborates on current research on human-robot interaction (HRI), noting that people will read emotion and motivations into a robot's behavior. She recounts research by Ehud Sharlin, a computer scientist at the University of Calgary. In that research, participants responded to a remotely controlled balsa wood stick. Koerth-Baker writes, “The study found that a vast majority assumed the stick had its own goals and internal thought processes.”

She quotes Sharlin as saying, “Our entire civilization is based on empathy. Societies are built on the principle that other entities have emotions.”

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