Robots can fool us into thinking we’re interacting socially and slow down our reactions, scientists say

It has long been known that making eye contact with a robot can be an unsettling experience. Scientists even have a name for the queasy feeling: the “Uncanny Valley”.

Thanks to researchers in Italy, we also now know it’s more than just a feeling.

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

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

“The question is whether the robotic gaze will evoke very similar mechanisms in the human brain as the gaze of another human being.”

The team asked 40 volunteers to play a video game “chicken” against a humanoid robot sitting opposite them – in which each player must decide whether to allow a car to drive straight into another car or to swerve to avoid a collision.

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

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

“Our results show that the human brain does indeed process robot gaze as a social cue, and this cue has implications for the way we make decisions, the strategies we use in-game, and also our responses.” said Wykowska.

“The robot’s mutual gaze affected decisions by delaying them, so humans were much slower to make in-game decisions.”

The results have implications for where and how humanoid robots will be used in the future.

“Once we understand when robots evoke social attunement, we can decide in which context this is desirable and beneficial for humans and in which context it shouldn’t be,” Wykowska said.

According to a report by the International Federation of Robotics, global sales of professional service robots increased by 32 percent between 2018 and 2019 to $11.2 billion (€9.4 billion).