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New Study Shows Humans Feel Empathy for Robots

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The humans on the television show Battlestar Galactica experience conflicting feelings when dealing with the humanoid Cylons. While some find it easy to torture the machines even though they resemble humans, many cringe at the thought of terrorizing the Cylons. It turns out the writers got this right—humans empathize with robots as much as they empathize with other people.

Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten, from the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany, began thinking about how humans relate to robots after a discussion about a YouTube video where people destroy a dinosaur robot. While she watched the video she experienced conflicting emotions: The video amused her, but she also felt bad for the dinosaur. She wondered if other people felt this way, too—and decided to do some research to find out.

She and her colleagues conducted two studies. In the first, 40 participants watched videos where a person either acts affectionately to a robot that looks like baby camarasaurus or attacks it. When the person kicked, strangled, punched, or dropped the robot, it cried, choked, or coughed. The researchers monitored the subjects as they watched the videos with a physiological monitoring device, which basically tracks how much someone sweats. The more stressed out we are, the more we sweat. The participants also answered questions about how they felt when they watched the person "hurt" the robot. The subjects sweated more and reported feeling badly about the camarasaurus’ plight.

In the second study, the researchers asked people to watch videos of a robot dinosaur and humans while an fMRI machine imaged the subjects’ brains to see how they processed it. The videos featured a woman or a robot in a positive situation—being stroked or tickled—or a negative one—being beaten and choked. The fMRI scans showed that when people watched robots and humans being abused the brain acted the same, which leads them to conclude that people feel empathy for robots. 

“[W]e did not find large differences in brain activation when comparing the human and robot stimuli. Even though we assumed that the robot stimuli would trigger emotional processing, we expected these processes to be considerably weaker than for human stimuli. It seems that both stimuli undergo the same emotional processing,” writes Rosenthal-von der Pütten.

She will present her findings at the International Communication Association Conference in London this June.

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Popcorn Might Be the Cheap, Biodegradable Robot Power Source of the Future
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If you've ever put a flat bag of kernels into the microwave and pulled out a full bag of fluffy popcorn two minutes later, you've witnessed a fascinating bit of food chemistry at work. Now, IEEE Spectrum reports that scientists are looking into applying the unique properties of popcorn to robotics.

For their study, presented at this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Cornell scientists stuffed the movable parts of a robot (a.k.a. the actuators) with unpopped kernels of corn. Usually actuators are powered by air, hydraulics, or electric currents, but as the researchers found, popcorn works as a cheap single-use alternative.

When heat is applied to popcorn kernels, the water trapped inside them turns to steam, creating enough pressure to peel back the tough exterior and release the starchy endosperm. A sudden drop in pressure causes the endosperm to quickly expand, while the cool outside air solidifies it.

The results can be dramatic: When popping extra small white kernels, the cheapest popcorn tested, researchers saw them expand to 15.7 times their original size. Inside a soft robot, this amounts to building interior pressure that moves the actuator one way or another.

A similar effect can be achieved using air, and unlike popcorn, air can be pumped more than once. But popcorn does offer some big advantages: Using popcorn and heat is cheaper than building air pumps, plus popcorn is biodegradable. For that reason, the researchers present it as an option for robots that are designed to be used once and decompose in the environments they're left in.

You can get an idea of how a popcorn-powered robot works in the video below.

[h/t IEEE Spectrum]

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Disney Parks May Soon Have Robotic Stunt People
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Animatronics are a staple of any Disney park, but as the company introduces more characters into the fold—like heroes from Star Wars, Marvel, and Avatar—the bar is being raised on audience expectations. On the screen, these characters defy gravity and pull off death-defying stunts, yet at the Disney parks, they’re still relying on fairly static animatronic models for their live shows and attractions. As Tech Crunch details, though, the gap between what the heroes do on film and in the park may be closing.

This development is all thanks to Disney’s R&D department, where Imagineers are working on next generation animatronics that can pull off aerial stunts like you’d see in any of the studio’s blockbuster films. The project is called Stuntronics, and its goal is to create animatronic stunt "heroes" that can replace a more static model in the middle of a Disney park show when the scene requires some high-energy action to take place. It's similar to the flesh and blood or CGI stunt people that movies have been using for decades.

In a video demonstrating their progress, a robot model is shown leaping from a cable to do backflips, double backflips, and other heroic landings. It’s something straight out of a Spider-Man movie and is years ahead of any animatronic character currently at the park.

Tony Dohi, principal R&D Imagineer at Disney, told Tech Crunch that the idea for this type of animatronic came about because they realized there was a “disconnect” between the exhibits at the park and what people see on film, so swapping in advanced animatronics for complex action scenes would go a long way toward making Disney’s parks feel more authentic to their properties. The Na’vi Shaman from the Avatar exhibit shows that Disney can get their animatronics to emote; this next step will put them into action.

According to Tech Crunch, right now the stunt robots are realized with the help of an “on-board accelerometer and gyroscope arrays supported by laser range finding.” They are autonomous and self-correct their aerial stunts to hit their marks. Though the model used in the video is just a generic mockup, it’s not hard to see how the Imagineers at Disney can easily turn it into any number of heroes from Marvel or Star Wars.

Stuntronics is just one of the advancements happening with robotics at Disney. Tech Crunch also detailed the Vyloo, which are a trio of autonomous bird-like robots in the park that react to guest movements. They can be seen in the Collector's Fortress in the Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! attraction at Disneyland in California.

The Stuntronics project is still in the R&D phase with no practical application in place just yet. But if this technology does progress the way the Imagineers are hoping, the blockbuster action of Star Wars, Marvel, and The Incredibles won’t just be exclusive to the movies anymore.

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