What are the legal rights of a robot? This is one of the many questions MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling contemplates as part of her work in robot ethics.
Robots have been working for decades in manufacturing, but now robots that focus on human interaction are becoming more common. Studies of human-robot interaction show that humans tend to treat them as if they were alive—although they know they are machines. “Our brains may be biologically hardwired to project intent and life onto any movement in our physical space that seems autonomous to us,” says Darling.
Machines are able to trigger empathy when they are designed with movements, language, and facial features that mirror human or animal behavior. This ability can be very helpful in using robots to supplement human interaction and also to interpret or modify human behavior.
“I did a study at the Media Lab where we found that people who have low empathic concern for others will treat a robot differently than people who have high empathic concern, so we can use a robot to measure human empathy,” says Darling. “Not only can we measure or observe people’s behavior with robots, but could we use robots therapeutically to help people manage their behavior?”