Better at English
055 – Could you kick a robot puppy?
Hello my lovely English learners! Lori here, your teacher from BetterAtEnglish.com. I love technology, so we’re talking about robots today, but not in the way you might expect. A lot of conversations about robots have to do with whether or not a robot or machine could ever develop genuine feelings or emotions. But today we’re going to be thinking about our own emotions and feelings toward robots, particularly empathy. Can we feel empathy toward robots? And if so, why?
Links to pre-listening background -- to get the most out of this podcast:
Short video of someone “torturing” a robot dinosaur (part of a research experiment). Make sure you watch it with sound. What do you feel as you watch this?
Kate Darling: Why we have an emotional connection to robots (TED talk)
Yasmin's profile on italki
Full transcript of this episode
Allow me to introduce you to Kate Darling. She is a super cool researcher who is looking into this very question. I’m going to play you a little bit from the beginning of her TED talk, where she explains how she got into this line of research. The link to the full presentation is in the show notes. It’s as entertaining as it is interesting and thought provoking, so I can wholeheartedly recommend you check out the whole thing. OK, here comes Kate:
“There was a day, about 10 years ago, when I asked a friend to hold a baby dinosaur robot upside down. It was this toy called a Pleo that I had ordered, and I was really excited about it because I've always loved robots. And this one has really cool technical features. It had motors and touch sensors and it had an infrared camera. And one of the things it had was a tilt sensor, so it knew what direction it was facing. And when you held it upside down, it would start to cry. And I thought this was super cool, so I was showing it off to my friend, and I said, "Oh, hold it up by the tail. See what it does." So we're watching the theatrics of this robot struggle and cry out. And after a few seconds, it starts to bother me a little, and I said, "OK, that's enough now. Let's put him back down." And then I pet the robot to make it stop crying.
And that was kind of a weird experience for me. For one thing, I wasn't the most maternal person at the time. Although since then I've become a mother, nine months ago, and I've learned that babies also squirm when you hold them upside down. (Laughter)
But my response to this robot was also interesting because I knew exactly how this machine worked, and yet I still felt compelled to be kind to it. And that observation sparked a curiosity that I've spent the past decade pursuing. Why did I comfort this robot? And one of the things I discovered was that my treatment of this machine was more than just an awkward moment in my living room, that in a world where we're increasingly integrating robots into our lives, an instinct like that might actually have consequences, because the first thing that I discovered is that it's not just me.”
She’s right, it’s not just her. I found a short video on Youtube that shows somebody being really mean to the same type of robot dinosaur that Kate uses in her research. It’s only one minute long, so if you want to pause the podcast and go watch it, feel free. The link is in the show notes. Anyway, when I watched this video myself I felt really uncomfortable, even though I knew it was just a toy robot. I’m not alone; here are some of the Youtube comments.
“Why would you do this!!!! It looks so scared, please stop and let me hug it.”
“The last part when he was hitting him to the table I heard it crying; that’s so sad.”