Tech

Looking a robot in the eye is confusing for your brain

A robot’s gaze seems to disrupt brain activity: we react as if a human gaze were staring at us, which, for example, lengthens the decision-making time.

Have you ever felt uneasy watching videos of robots that look like us?

It is a phenomenon called “disturbing valley” (uncanny valley, in English). When a robot is an android, it displays similarities to human beings, but there are some clues that it is only artificial. It is this sort of shift that creates the psychological phenomenon of disturbance.

What if robots had other effects on us, including our brains? In a study published on September 1, 2021 in ScienceRobotics, a team of five scientists took an interest in robots. ” The gaze is an extremely powerful and important signal during communication and interaction between humans, as it conveys intentions and informs about the decisions of others. What happens when a robot and a human interact while looking at each other? “, Ask the authors.

Decision making becomes more difficult when the robot is looking at us

The experiment involved 40 people, seated in front of a computer screen, on which they were to play the “chicken game”. In this game, based on the “arm wrestling strategy”, two cars rush towards each other and, when you approach the other car, you have to make a choice: either dedicate your route to avoid accident, or you continue your journey hoping to force the other car to deviate from its path.

The study included a small subtlety: just before the impact between the two cars, and therefore at the decisive moment of decision-making, the game was paused and the participants were then invited to watch, next to them, the robot. The latter, an iCub-type robot, stared participants in the eye or kept looking away.

The robot’s fiery gaze is indeed intoxicating. // Source: Italian Institute of Technology

This allowed scientists to spot variations in behavior from one group to another, but also possible changes in brain activity, which was monitored using an electroencephalography device.

The authors were able to make several observations:

  • The robot’s gaze has no impact on the choice itself, however the influence on decision-making time is significant: when the iCub robot did not fix their gaze, participants reacted more quickly afterwards. In the research paper, the scientists explain: “ Consistent with our hypothesis, the delayed responses within subjects after a mutual gaze may suggest that the mutual gaze required greater cognitive effort. “. The robot’s gaze makes decision-making more difficult, because the brain will have to engage in a “laborious” and “expensive” mechanism to ignore this gaze.
  • Analysis of the electroencephalogram suggests that this is the result of a modification of neuronal activity, and more particularly in alpha waves, which are associated with attention and concentration.

Imagine that you are playing poker with a robot. If the robot is watching you when you have to make a decision on the next move, you will have a harder time making a decision than if the robot is looking away. Your brain will also have to employ laborious and expensive processes to try to ‘ignore’ the robot’s gaze. “, Try to illustrate the scientists.

But this laborious mechanism, this distraction of attention by a sustained gaze, this is also what happens when we meet the gaze of a human.

The resemblance of the robot’s eyes to those of a human therefore acts directly on sociocognitive mechanisms: the brain responds to the robot’s gaze as if it were a human social subject. This is not necessarily good news, as interacting with robots could interfere with performance and speed of decision-making as a result.

In any case, the result is not trivial according to the authors. ” Robots will be more and more present in our daily life. That’s why it’s important to understand not only the technological aspects of robot design, but also the human side of human-robot interaction. Specifically, it is important to understand how the human brain processes behavioral signals conveyed by robots.

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