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:

Kate Darling:

“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.”

I feel bad for him, although I know it’s just a pile of plastic and metal that can’t even think.”

Of course, Youtube comments being what they are, there were also people saying things like “This made me laugh so hard,” and “How do I get this job,” but I’m fairly sure those people were just trying to be funny. At least I hope so.

We humans have evolved to have empathy for our fellow human beings and for most of us this also extends to animals. Well, cute animals at least. But why in the world would we feel empathy or any kind of emotional connection to a robot, or a machine? I mean, they don’t have emotions or feel pain. They can’t actually have any feelings toward us. Why do we still want to be kind to them?

This is what we discuss in the following conversation. You’ll hear me talking to Yasmin, who by the way is an active teacher on italki — there is a link to her profile in the show notes if you would like to get to know her better. She’s from the UK but lives in Canada now, and we got over Zoom to talk about Kate Darling’s presentation, and our own emotional connections to inanimate objects. You’ll hear us starting out with some small talk about podcasts, which leads us naturally into the main topic of our conversation. The small talk is not relevant to our topic, but I’m leaving it in as an example of the natural flow of informal conversations from one topic to another.

As always, you can find the transcript and links to supplementary material on my website, betteratenglish.com. The links and a preview of the transcript should also be right in your podcast player. Don’t worry, everything on my website is free for you to download and use for your English learning.

All right…are you ready? Here comes the conversation.

Conversation transcript

Lori: Do you have any, just for yourself, favorite podcasts that you like to listen to?

Yasmin: Um…

Lori: …if you don’t mind saying?

Yasmin: My favorite one, my favorite one is…oh, what’s it called? Into the…Into the Wild, I think it’s called…

Lori: Okay.

Yasmin: …or something like this. And it’s basically a lot of different people who have adventured all over the world. And they talk about loads of different things. Like my favorite one was with this man called Levison Wood. And he was talking about his trip to Botswana, and dealing with the elephants or learning about elephant behavior and working with the conservation team out there. And so that was really interesting. So things like that I really liked listening to

Lori: Okay, interesting. Yeah, I think I have seen that one in either in iTunes or in the podcast app somewhere into the wild. Sounds familiar, but I haven’t actually listened to that.

Yasmin: But yeah, it’s worth listening to. They have many different, totally different topics, which all are quite interesting.

Lori: Yeah. And you being a traveler, I can, I can imagine that that’s extra interesting.

Yasmin: Yeah, absolutely. I want to go to Africa and see the elephants. That’s probably the main reason.

Lori: I love elephants. I love elephants. You know, I don’t know. Have you ever seen I think it’s one of the David Attenborough nature shows where there’s these elephants walking across the desert. And it’s like an aerial view, and it’s all…they’re in a drought. And it’s really, really dry and horrible. And then at some point, you see this little baby elephant walking all by itself. And he’s gotten lost, and he’s walking the wrong way. It’s like the saddest thing I think I’ve ever seen. I cried when I saw that poor baby elephant.

Yasmin: Oh, my God. So sad, isn’t it?

Lori: Yeah. So sad. I…that’s…if my, my partner, we almost use that as a benchmark. When I see something sad about animals, I’m like, “Yeah, it was really sad, but still not as bad as that baby elephant going the wrong way.”

Yasmin: Aww. I mean, these elephants as so smart, they have like, you know, their internal compass, which is why it’s like surprising when you have such young elephants who go the wrong way. And I suppose they have such strong family connections almost, you know, stronger than human connection.

Lori: Yeah.

Yasmin: Which is quite, quite amazing.

Lori: It’s incredible. I would give anything to be able to actually get inside the mind of an animal and be able to understand what they’re thinking.

Yasmin: It’d be amazing, wouldn’t it? It’s very sad, though, you know, all the hunting in the poaching which goes on and the human animal conflict out in Africa when these sorts of countries it’s, it’s quite sad.

Lori: Yeah. Yeah, it is really sad. And I know that it must be a really complex issue. I mean, I can look at it and just totally condemn them for doing that. But then, you know, everyone always has their reasons. I think it’s a horrible, horrible thing. And it’s just sad that some people are, you know, they feel that that’s the only way, the only thing that they can do…

Yasmin: Absolutely

Lori: …is terrible. But yeah, it’s it’s funny, we’re talking about this because, you know, I had wanted to talk to you about that video, about…

Yasmin: Yeah!

Lori: …we have so much empathy for real real animals and people, but we can actually have empathy for robots.

Yasmin: Isn’t it crazy? And you know what though, is it’s funny because we look at animals and we think they’re so cute. We see a little puppy and we just want to go and cuddle it. It’s so sweet. And I think that people do create attachments to robots because often they they look kind of sweet they look they don’t look like something scary they look like something which we could actually have a connection to.

Lori: Yeah.

Yasmin: And so super soft people are too, too kind and caring, they just want…anything that they feel like they can protect I suppose they want to.

Lori: Yeah, I thought…what was really kind of blew me away about that video was the way that the military guys would actually develop these attachments to the landmine robots, the bomb disposal robots..

Yasmin: Absolutely. It’s, I mean, I think though, that robots who perform, like, services to help people, I think maybe, maybe it’s possible that humans create a stronger connection to those robots because they feel bad for them. They feel like empathy towards them, because this robot is doing what technically the maybe the people should be doing. And so, you know, like it says, in the video, you do see so many of these robots who work in the in the army, or the military, having funerals. and people really taking care of them, which is insane.

Lori: Yeah, amazing. And and it does bring up that issue that maybe it’s not so good that a soldier is, like, feeling sorry for his bomb disposal robot. I mean…

END TRANSCRIPT PREVIEW – read the rest here.

Videos mentioned in the introduction

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)

Connect with Yasmin on italki (she would be a great tutor!)

Full disclosure: I make a tiny commission if you sign up for paid lessons on italki via my links. It is the only online teaching platform that I really feel good about recommending, because I use and benefit from it myself. Italki is not a sponsor.

Other things mentioned in the Conversation

Short video of the baby elephant going the wrong way (this will make you cry).

Into the Wilderness podcast episode with Levison Wood (the podcast the Yasmin mentions)

Lori’s ridiculously cute rice cooker

PARO therapy robot (the cute seal robot used with Alzheimer’s patients)
Google image search for Paro seal

Military robots get awards, nicknames and funerals

Supplementary material

Short video about “emotional support” robots

Kate Darling’s website

You can find links to all her great videos from the page below, including the talk that Yasmin and Lori discuss “Why We Have an Emotional Connection to Robots”