Human or robot? Ask the baby

U. WASHINGTON-SEATTLE (US) — Four times as many babies who watched a robot interact socially with people were willing to learn from the robot than babies who did not see the interactions, a new study shows.

The finding offers clues to how babies decide whether a new object, such as a robot, can think and feel. Details are reported in the October/November issue of Neural Networks.

“Babies learn best through social interactions, but what makes something ‘social’ for a baby?” says Andrew Meltzoff, lead author of the paper and co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “It is not just what something looks like, but how it moves and interacts with others that gives it special meaning to the baby.”

“Babies look to us for guidance in how to interpret things, and if we treat something as a psychological agent, they will, too,” Meltzoff says. “Even more remarkably, they will learn from it, because social interaction unlocks the key to early learning.”

Meltzoff and colleagues hypothesized that babies would be more likely to view the robot as a psychological being if they saw other friendly human beings socially interacting with it.

During the experiment, an 18-month-old baby sat on its parent’s lap facing study coauthor Rechele Brooks, a research assistant professor. Sixty-four babies participated in the study, and they were tested individually. They played with toys for a few minutes, getting used to the experimental setting.


Top panel: The baby sits across from the robot. Middle panel: Robot turns its “head” toward a toy. Babies who did not watch the robot play games with the researcher did not look to see where the robot looked. Bottom panel: Babies who had watched the robot play games with the researcher followed the robot’s “gaze.” They wanted to see what the robot was seeing. (Credit: Neural Networks)

Once the babies were comfortable, Brooks removed a barrier that had hidden a metallic humanoid robot with arms, legs, a torso and a cube-shaped head containing camera lenses for eyes.

The robot—controlled by a researcher hidden from the baby—waved, and Brooks said, “Oh, hi! That’s our robot!”

Following a script, Brooks asked the robot, named Morphy, if it wanted to play, and then led it through a game. She would ask, “Where is your tummy?” and “Where is your head?” and the robot pointed to its torso and its head. Then Brooks demonstrated arm movements and Morphy imitated.

The babies looked back and forth as if at a ping pong match, Brooks says.

At the end of the 90-second script, Brooks excused herself from the room. The researchers then measured whether the baby thought the robot was more than its metal parts.

The robot beeped and shifted its head slightly—enough of a rousing to capture the babies’ attention. The robot turned its head to look at a toy next to the table where the baby sat on the parent’s lap.

Most babies—13 out of 16—who had watched the robot play with Brooks followed the robot’s gaze. In a control group of babies who had been familiarized with the robot but had not seen Morphy engage in games, only three of 16 turned to where the robot was looking.

“We are using modern technology to explore an age-old question about the essence of being human,” says Meltzoff. “The babies are telling us that communication with other people is a fundamental feature of being human.”

More news from the University of Washington: