A neurocognitive investigation of the impact of socializing with a robot on empathy for pain


To what extent can humans form social relationships with robots? In the present study, we combined functional neuroimaging with a robot socializing intervention to probe the flexibility of empathy, a core component of social relationships, towards robots. Twenty-six individuals underwent identical fMRI sessions before and after being issued a social robot to take home and interact with over the course of a week. While undergoing fMRI, participants observed videos of a human actor or a robot experiencing pain or pleasure in response to electrical stimulation. Repetition suppression of activity in the pain network, a collection of brain regions associated with empathy and emotional responding, was measured to test whether socializing with a social robot leads to greater overlap in neural mechanisms when observing human and robotic agents experiencing pain or pleasure. In contrast to our hypothesis, functional region-of-interest analyses revealed no change in neural overlap for agents after the socializing intervention. Similarly, no increase in activation when observing a robot experiencing pain emerged post-socializing. Whole-brain analysis showed that, before the socializing intervention, superior parietal and early visual regions are sensitive to novel agents, while after socializing, medial temporal regions show agent sensitivity. A region of the inferior parietal lobule was sensitive to novel emotions, but only during the pre-socializing scan session. Together, these findings suggest that a short socialization intervention with a social robot does not lead to discernible differences in empathy towards the robot, as measured by behavioural or brain responses. We discuss the extent to which long-term socialization with robots might shape social cognitive processes and ultimately our relationships with these machines. This article is part of the theme issue ‘From social brains to social robots: applying neurocognitive insights to human–robot interaction’.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences