Babies Treat Robots Like Human Beings

Morphy the Robot was the centerpiece for a recent experiment conducted at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. It appears to demonstrate that babies treat expressive robots as if they are human beings.


( Andrew Meltzoff, Morphy the Robot, and Rajesh Rao )

A study at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences took a sample of 64 18-month-old babies, who were all tested individually. The experimental test had the babies sit on their parents' laps, facing a remote-controlled humanoid robot. Sitting next to the robot was Rechele Brooks, one of the researchers on the study. Brooks and the robot (controlled remotely by an unseen researcher) would then engage in a 90-second skit, in which Brooks interacted with the robot as if it was a child, asking questions like "Where is your tummy?" and "Where is your head?" The robot would in turn point to its different parts. The robot would also imitate a few arm movements, like waving back and forth.

The babies who watched this skit looked back and forth between the robot and Brooks as if "at a ping-pong match," said Brooks. After the skit, Brooks left the room, leaving the baby and the robot alone (well, along with the baby's parent--this probably isn't a punching or stabbing robot, but there's no harm in being extra safe). The robot would then beep and shift slightly to get the baby's attention, and then turn to look at a nearby toy.

In 13 out of 16 cases, the baby would follow the robot's gaze, suggesting that the baby sees the robot as a sentient being, that what the robot looks at might be of interest to the baby as well. Babies at that age distinguish between, say, a swivel chair's movement and a person's movement, and will only follow the person. But in following the robot, the study suggests that the baby has decided that robot is a human being.

This is big news for Philip K. Dick fans, who have been wondering if children would ever be accepting of robots as nannies. In his 1952 short story Nanny, children completely accept the robot as their friend and companion:

"Come on!" Bobby shouted.

Abruptly Nanny moved, spinning slightly as her treads gripped the floor and turned her around. One of her side doors opened. A long metal rod shot out. Playfully, Nanny caught Bobby's arm with her grapple and drew him to her. She perched him on her back. Bobby's legs straddled the metal hull. He kicked with his heels excitedly, jumping up and down.

"Race you around the block!" Jean shouted.

From PopSci via Frolix_8.

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