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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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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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Aibo, Sony’s Failed Robot Dog, Is Returning as a Smart Home Device
Sven Volkens, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When Sony released its robotic dog Aibo in 1999, marketing it as “Man’s Best Friend for the 21st Century,” sales were impressive. But the public fascination didn’t last forever. Even though it was low-maintenance and allergy-free, most dog-lovers still preferred the pets they had to clean up after and feed. Aibo was discontinued seven years later.

Now, Mashable reports that Aibo is making a comeback, and it’s been given a few updates to make it a better fit for the current decade. When the robot companion returns to shelves in spring of 2018, it will double as a smart home device. That’s a big step up from the early Aibos, which couldn’t do much beyond playing fetch, wagging their tails, and singing the occasional song.

Sony’s original Aibo team, which was redistributed throughout the company in 2006, has reformed to tackle the project. Instead of trying to replace your flesh-and-blood Fido at home, they’ve designed a robot that can compete with other AI home speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home. The new dog can connect to the internet, so owners will be able to command it to do things like look up the weather as well as sit and fetch. Aibo will run on an open source software, which means that third party developers will be able to program new features that Sony doesn’t include in the initial release.

While Aibo is often remembered as a turn-of-the-millennium failure, it's still beloved in some communities. In 2015 The New York Times published a short documentary profiling owners in Japan who struggle to care for their robots as parts become scarce. When the pets break down for good, some of them even hold Aibo funerals. It will soon became clear if the 2018 models inspire a cult following of their own.

[h/t Mashable]

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