Scientists Say Robots Can Trick Us into Thinking We’re Socially Interacting and Slow Our Reactions

It has long been known that eye contact with a robot can cause anxiety. Scientists even have a name for the nauseating feeling: “uncanny valley.”

Now, thanks to researchers in Italy, we also know that it’s more than just a feeling.

A team from the Istituto Italiano Di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa has shown how a robotic gaze can trick us into thinking we’re socially interacting and slow down our ability to make decisions.

“The gaze is an extremely important social signal that we use every day when interacting with other people,” said Professor Agnieszka Wykowska, lead author of the study, published Wednesday in the journal Science Robots.

“The question is whether the gaze of a robot will trigger very similar mechanisms in the human brain as the gaze of another person.”

The team asked 40 volunteers to play a “chicken” video game, where each player had to decide whether to let a car drive straight towards another car or swerve to avoid a collision against a humanoid robot sitting across from them.

Between rounds, players had to look at the robot, which sometimes looked back and sometimes turned away.

In each scenario, the scientists collected data on behavior and neural activity using electroencephalography (EEG), which detects electrical activity in the brain.

“Our results show that, in fact, the human brain processes the gaze of a robot as a social signal, and this signal influences how we make decisions, the strategies we use in the game, as well as our reactions.” Vykovskaya said.

“The robot’s mutual gaze influenced decisions, delaying them, so humans were much slower in making decisions in the game.”

The findings have implications for where and how humanoid robots will be deployed in the future.

“Once we understand when robots cause social attunement, we can decide in what context it is desirable and beneficial for humans, and in what context it should not occur,” Wykowska said.

Global sales of professional service robots have already jumped 32% to $11.2 billion (9.4 billion euros) between 2018 and 2019, according to a report from the International Federation of Robotics.