Robots provide insight into human perception

August 18, 2010, Wellcome Trust
Robots provide insight into human perception
Photo of the robot used in the study. Credit: Dr Thierry Chaminade

Research using a robot designed to express human emotions has revealed unexpected insights into how our perception is affected by anthropomorphism, or giving human characteristics to non-human animals or things.

An international group of researchers, including a team from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, conducted the study. They found that when volunteers were focused on the emotions shown by the robot, their brain responses started to look like those made to humans showing the same emotions. This finding may be important in helping any future developments of personal robots, as it will help designers to create robots that people will interact with more easily.

"My work looks for both a better understanding of the system, and a better understanding of what features could make a robot more agreeable to interact with," says lead researcher Dr Thierry Chaminade from the Wellcome Trust Centre for . "This is quite interesting, because the way you present your robot can make a huge difference in how people perceive it."

For the study, researchers from a number of countries including the UK, Italy and Japan created a robot called WE4-RII, which makes movements and of human emotions. Then, 13 male volunteers watched short video clips of either a human or the robot expressing a particular emotion.

Each clip showed the face and upper body of the human or robot, moving from a neutral expression to joy, anger, disgust or speech. Participants had to rate on a sliding scale how much emotion or how much movement the face showed. As the volunteers rated the clips, their brain was scanned by (fMRI), a technique that allows to be monitored noninvasively in different parts of the brain.

As the researchers predicted, when the participants viewed the clips of humans, their brains showed more activity in areas that have so-called mirror properties. Mirror neurons are brain cells that send signals both when a person performs an action and when they view the same action being performed by another.

These neurons are thought to play a major role in empathy, so the researchers expected that the participants would show such activity when they viewed clips of a human moving and showing emotion.

It was also predicted that the participants would respond to the robot, but not as strongly as they did to humans, as the robot is clearly mechanical. However, the participants showed a greater response to the robot when they were required to rate its emotions, compared to when they rated its movements.

The researchers think that when the participants judged the level of emotion shown by the , they did not notice as much that it was mechanical and so they were more responsive to it. "The robots provided extremely interesting tools to investigate the perception of actions," says Dr Chaminade.

"Perceiving actions is the first element of interacting with someone else - perceiving speech, perceiving what they're doing... It was completely unknown if robots being humanoids would be perceived as being human or not, which in itself opens an interesting question for using humanoids for an unbelievable number of applications."

More information: Chaminade T et al. Brain response to a humanoid robot in areas implicated in the perception of human emotional gestures. PLoS One. 2010 Jul 21;5(7):e11577.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Brainwaves show how exercising to music bends your mind

February 18, 2018
Headphones are a standard sight in gyms and we've long known research shows listening to tunes can be a game-changer for your run or workout.

New approaches in neuroscience show it's not all in your head

February 16, 2018
Our own unique experiences shape how we view the world and respond to the events in our lives. But experience is highly subjective. What's distressing or joyful to one person may be very different to another.

Link between hallucinations and dopamine not such a mystery, finds study

February 16, 2018
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) found that people with schizophrenia who experience auditory hallucinations tend to hear what they expect, ...

People find comfort listening to the same songs over and over, study finds

February 16, 2018
With the frequency that some people play their favorite song, it's a good thing vinyl records aren't used often because they might wear out.

Ketamine found to reduce bursting in brain area reducing depression quickly

February 15, 2018
A team of researchers at Zhejiang University in China has found that the drug ketamine reduces neuronal bursting in the lateral habenula (LHb) brain region, reducing symptoms of depression in rodent models. In their paper ...

What predicts the quality of children's friendships? Study shows cognition, emotion together play

February 15, 2018
Whether children think their peers' intentions are benign or hostile, and how those children experience and express their own emotions, may influence the quality of their friendships, according to a new study from the University ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.