How a robot's gaze can affect the human brain

1 September (Reuters) – It has long been recognized that making eye contact with a robot may be disconcerting. The uneasy feeling has even been given a name by scientists: the “uncanny valley.”

We now know it’s more than simply a feeling, according to Italian experts.

A team from Genoa’s Istituto Italiano Di Tecnologia (IIT) demonstrated how a robot’s gaze might fool us into believing we are socially engaging. How it slows our capacity to make judgments.

“Gaze is a very significant social signal. We use it on a daily basis when engaging with people,” said Professor Agnieszka Wykowska, the main author of the study. It was published in the journal Science Robots on Wednesday.

“The concern is whether a robot’s stare will elicit very comparable mechanisms in the human brain as another person’s gaze.”

The researchers recruited 40 volunteers to compete against a humanoid robot in a video game of “chicken,” in which each participant must decide whether to let a car travel straight towards another automobile or to detour to prevent a collision.

On March 15, 2021, an employee looks at a humanoid robot produced by Promobot service robotics firm at the company’s branch in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia. Yuri Maltsev/Reuters

Players had to gaze at the robot between rounds, which would sometimes glance back and sometimes look away.

The scientists gathered data on behavior and cerebral activity in each situation using electroencephalography (EEG). It measures electrical activity in the brain.

“Our findings reveal that the human brain interprets the robot gaze as a social signal That signal influences the way we make decisions, the methods we use in the game, and our responses,” Wykowska said.

“Because the robot’s mutual gaze affected decisions by delaying them, humans were substantially slower in making game decisions.”

The findings could affect where and how humanoid robots are used in the future.

“Once we know when robots evoke social attunement. So, we can decide in which situations this is desirable and useful for humans, and in which situations it should not,” Wykowska added.

According to a survey published by the International Federation of Robotics, global sales of professional service robots increased by 32% to $11.2 billion between 2018 and 2019.

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