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Cruelty towards robots
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by Rosalia, Menges, Deckers, Bartneck 21 the future of Robotics

The goal of our experiment was to gain a deeper understanding of human-robot interaction. If we are to believe the Media Equation humans treat computers as social actors. In other words we treat computers in a similar way as we would tread another human being.

We wanted to know if this pattern would also hold true for the more negative sides of human behavior. The capacity of humans to torture each other has been demonstrated by various experiments in the past. So the question we tried to answer is: “Will a human torture a robot differently than it would another human?”

The Milgram Experiment
In 1965 Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments called Obedience. As the name suggest Milgram wanted to investigate the relationship between authority and obedience.

The cover-story told to the subjects was that it was a memory test. During the experiments the subjects were told to give electrical shocks to another person. This second person was in fact an actor and didn’t actually get shocked. The actor had to perform a test and every time he made a mistake the subject would have to administer a shock with every mistake the voltage would be increased. The experiment proceeded the actor would seem to suffer more from the shocks. He would start complaining and this would go on to screams of pain. He would plead with the subject to stop the experiment. The subject would in turn be urged by another actor playing the experimenter, to go on with the test. The main measure of the test would be at which voltage, if any, would the subject refuse to go on.


What immediately stands out in the results is the fact that all participants continued until they reached the maximum voltage. In Milgram’s original experiment only 16 out of 40 participants applied the maximum shock. Of course this does not necessarily mean that none of them felt compassion for the robot. During the original Milgram experiments there were enough subject who were really troubled by what they were doing and yet also continued all the way to the maximum voltage. There were many subjects who expressed pity or compassion towards the robot, one even tried to cheat so that he would not have to administer the shocks. But the urges of the experimenter were always enough to make them continue all the way to the end. What we can get out of these results is that humans can ignore their feelings of compassion easier when dealing with robots than with humans.

It would be wrong to assume that because of the results that the Media-Equation does not apply to human-robot interaction. However, what we did notice is that it only applies to a certain degree, especially in the cases of negative human behavior. Contrary to interaction with other humans, it would seem that when dealing with robots, humans will disregard their own feelings of compassion if they believe that no permanent damage will come from their actions. This knowledge will help in the design of robots that will have to interact with humans on a regular basis, e.g. house-robots. One requirement that we would be able to derive is be that such robots have to be “torture-proof”.

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