Some of my favourite movies and TV shows have featured robots (and no, I’m not going to bother differentiating between bots and droids). From C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars to Daryl (D.A.R.Y.L) and David (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) to Pris in Blade Runner. And could I write seriously about how humans are sympathetic toward robots without mentioning The Terminator?
Of course, it’s easier to see them as human when they’re supposed to be just like us (except they’re robots). I could totally relate to Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Dorian (Almost Human). Both television characters are robots living among humans: they know somehow they are different from the others around them, and no matter what they do or how well they imitate human behavior, they will never actually be human. Oh yeah, I can relate.
I used to think it was because of my writing ability. I have a highly developed sense of empathy, and in addition to being able to relate to robots, I have a tendency to feel sorry for inanimate objects such as shoes, wood utensils and other tossable items that are victims of meltdowns or temper tantrums. But it turns out it’s not just writers who commiserate with robotic creatures.
In scientific studies that measure human response to specific situations, researchers discovered that we have a tender spot for robots. It seems that we don’t view them simply as machines. Most participants in a number of these studies consistently reacted when the robots were “hurt” or “picked on.” In some studies, human response to escalated violence towards the robots equaled that displayed when human beings were mistreated. Study after study produces similar results – its seems we feel uncomfortable when we witness robot abuse. However, studies that measured the intensity of a person’s response, even though he or she might empathize with the robot, registered significantly higher when a human was being hurt than when a robot was suffering.
It does make a certain kind of sense that we feel sorry for robots when something bad happens to them. Maybe it’s shades of Spinoza (of “Stones can think” fame). Most of them do look like us; even the ones that don’t still kinda do.