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Robotics Idle Science

Study Shows Babies Think Friendly Robots Are Sentient 159

seanonymous writes "A study from University of Washington claims that babies think robots are human, so long as the robots are friendly. No word on what evil robots are thought to be. From the article: 'At 18 months old, babies have begun to make conscious delineations between sentient beings and inanimate objects. But as robots get more and more advanced, those decisions may become harder to make. What causes a baby to decide a robot is more than bits of metal? As it turns out, it takes more than humanoid looks — babies rely on social interaction to make that call.'"


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Study Shows Babies Think Friendly Robots Are Sentient

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  • by pilgrim23 ( 716938 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:01PM (#33909756)
    Klaatu barada nikto -now doesn't that sound like clear baby talk?.
  • by XanC ( 644172 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:01PM (#33909760)

    Do they think the dog is sentient?

    • by CohibaVancouver ( 864662 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @03:11PM (#33911464)

      Do they think the dog is sentient?

      Initially, yes. Interestingly, when our toddler was developing her language skills, she practiced three sets of sounds - English language sounds that she heard her parents speaking, Spanish-language sounds that she heard from her nanny and grandmother and growly barky sounds that she heard from the dog. Eventually she realized the dog was a lower-order being and stopped trying to speak dog.

  • Correction (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MozeeToby ( 1163751 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:01PM (#33909762)

    Correction: Should read "Babies behave towards things the same way they observed adults behaving towards them". The babies in the study didn't behave as if the robots were sentient unless they had watched an adult treat the robot as if it were sentient. Only if they watched an adult 'play' with the robot like a human child did the babies respond as if the robot were alive, even though the robot was programmed with the exact same movements in both set ups. This says a lot more about how children learn from adults than it does about how children perceive robots.

    • Exactly (Score:5, Interesting)

      by snspdaarf ( 1314399 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:25PM (#33910110)
      Their beliefs are based on limited experience. When I was little, I watched musicians doing a live radio show. For a while after that, I thought that all music on the radio was performed live. It's the same kind of thing.
    • by QuantumG ( 50515 ) *

      What's truly incredible about all this research is that for decades now we've known that infants can form stories about what a person is doing by observing them - even though the infant is incapable of performing the same activities, has never participated in those activities, etc.

      Coming up with the experimental technique to reach this conclusion has been an education in itself.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by c6gunner ( 950153 )

        What's truly incredible about all this research is that for decades now we've known that infants can form stories about what a person is doing by observing them - even though the infant is incapable of performing the same activities, has never participated in those activities, etc.

        Yeah, but how accurate are those stories? After all, we know that the Cargo Cults formed stories about what the White Man was doing on their islands, and even attempted to imitate what they saw. Unfortunately their stories reflected their own culture, experiences, and beliefs, and only superficially resembled what they were observing. If what we're seeing in infants is the same, I don't see anything particularly incredible about it.

  • Seriously, where is she? [youtube.com]

    Though, sometimes she is a little bossy.

  • Hopefully, this same trick will work on robot babies. We must start at a young age and show them that we are robots. It is the only way to protect our species.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    No word on what evil robots are thought to be.
    That is simple. They are known to be republicans.
  • Well... (Score:2, Funny)

    by SudoGhost ( 1779150 )
    I for one, welcome our new robot babysitter overlords.
  • the first scientist to upload video of a baby playing with a (friendly) robot wins 20 million youtube views (whatever that's worth). I'd watch.

  • Not at all surprising--there have been conclusive studies done in the past on just how stupid babies are [demon.co.uk].

  • Lawyers.

    Babies just have a hard time saying the word.
  • this only proves that social construct theory is nature rather than nurture / environmental. People form social groups through the avoidance of annoying and hostile relationships. It does not seem far fetched at all to think that people would trend towards useful, interesting, non-hostile, non-living things. People, including babies seek stimulation for learning. A playful robot would hold my attention, and I might lose interest if I thought there was a good chance he robot was going to cause me harm.

  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:21PM (#33910062) Homepage Journal

    According to psychologist Paul Bloom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Bloom_(psychologist) [wikipedia.org] , babies think lots of things are sentient.

    If they show a movie to babies with geometrical figures, they assume that the geometrical figures are helping or hindering each other because geometrical figures want to.

    He said this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, because it improves survival if you assume everything around you that moves might be out to get you.

    He also says that this is an evolutionary explanation of religion, by finding sentient beings behind all of nature. If you see a storm, there must be a sentient being behind it.

    • by smooth wombat ( 796938 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @02:10PM (#33910668) Journal
      NOVA (from PBS) had a three-part show called "The Human Spark" which was hosted by Alan Alda. In the shows, they examined what makes us human compared to the rest of the animal kingdom and how it relates to our brain.

      During the show, they showed how babies (roughly 3 - 9 months old) could discern good from bad by watching colored blocks and how they behaved towards one another or how puppets played nice with one another.

      One thing that came out during the show and made me say, "Hmmm" was the fact that if I were to point at something, without saying anything, you would look in the direction I was pointing.

      Oddly enough, so do dogs. If you point at something, a dog will look. Here's the interesting part: wolves don't do this. Apparently, through the ages, as we've bred dogs to their current form, we have inadvertently bred this trait into them whereas wolves, ostensibly the originator of modern dogs, lack this trait.

      To see the programs, visit http://video.pbs.org/program/1356407145/ [pbs.org]

      or here:

      http://www.pbs.org/wnet/humanspark/tag/alan-alda/ [pbs.org]

      In the second link, the second excerpt called Social Networks and the Spark, has the video of a baby choosing an inanimate toys who appears friendly/cooperative compared to one that isn't.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by nbauman ( 624611 )

        Thanks for pointing that out. I don't watch much TV right now, but one thing I miss is some pretty good science TV programs.

        Interesting about dogs. Oddly enough, chimpanzees won't look (as I recall). You can put a reward under a can, point to it, and they won't realize you're giving them a hint.

        There's a reason why humans and dogs get along so well together. Our behavior has co-evolved for 10,000 years.

        • Oddly enough, chimpanzees won't look (as I recall).

          You are correct. That was pointed out in the show also. However, something in regards to chimps that was shown, is that if you have a treat which requires two chimps to cooperate to get, they will do it.

          Now, if one chimp wants the treat and the other doesn't, while the first chimp might help for a short time, it will eventually stop. It is at that point that the second chimp appears to "encourage" the first chimp to pull its load so the second c
          • by nbauman ( 624611 )

            Yes, chimpanzees cooperate like that in the lab, but no one has seen them cooperate like that in the wild.

            So you wonder how they managed to evolve this potential without using it.

            Chimpanzees cooperate in a general way, by sharing food or hunting together, but only humans cooperate in order to accomplish complex tasks like the ones the researchers thought up, with food too far away to reach.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by bughunter ( 10093 )

        If you point at something, a dog will look.

        Not a cat. If you point at something for a cat, the cat will just look at your hand. At best. If they don't just ignore you.

        What does that say about cats, then?

        (On the other hand, I often use my cat to help me locate a strange sound, or identify whether a strange sound is a threat. Hear sound, check cat's reaction. If the cat shows interest, then it's a novel stimulus and may warrant my attention as well. If the cat runs away, it's probably a visitor or some other cat-threat. If the cat runs to the d

    • So essentially we're hardwired for animism. I'm so glad we've finally settled that question.

  • Maybe this is why my 18 month old thinks tickle me elmo is so fucking scary?
  • by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:32PM (#33910218) Journal

    Adults think their pets are human, and humans of different colors are animals. People are generally not a good source of judgment.

    • Adults think their pets are human...

      Except for the adults who don't think that...

    • I don't think that's fair. All but a handful genuine crackpots know that their pets are not human. Some treat them as human, but that's not necessarily an indicator of poor judgement.

      • by blair1q ( 305137 )

        If you want to get all semanticky about things, babies can't "think", period. Their brain wiring comes out without insulation (myelin), so their heads can be smaller so they'll fit through the human birth canal which has to be small because erect posture means the gestation takes place directly over the pelvic opening which can't be so big the uterus prolapses halfway through the process. What they're doing is recognizing shapes and motions that are hardwired into the more primitive portions of the brain

  • What are the qualifications to be be considered sentient?

    • by kurokame ( 1764228 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:48PM (#33910400)
      The qualification to be considered sentient is that it appears to have human-like intelligence to a human.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by speroni ( 1258316 )

        Are you thinking Sapient?

        Sapient, Sentient, Conscious and Self-Aware aren't all the same?

        I'd say: Babies are Sentient (Can feel and perceive), Marginally Sapient (can make basic judgments only), Conscious (aware that stuff is going on[when they're, you know, awake]) and not very self-aware (not much identity of self)

        Regarding the dog conversation above, I dont think this is much different than a dog. I heard a line once "A kid is like a dog that grows up and learns how to talk".
        (don't hate me, kids are cool

  • ...the robot was not impressed.

  • by Just_Say_Duhhh ( 1318603 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:37PM (#33910272)

    I think there is strong evidence [wikipedia.org] that humans much older than 18 months cannot make a delineation between sentient beings and inanimate objects.

    If the supplied evidence is not enough, try this [wikipedia.org].

  • My daughter is almost three years-old. One of the most interesting things to observe is how she classifies her world. When she was 18 months old she would have classified a robot as sentient; she thought almost everything was alive (sort of a toddler version of pantheism). If it was a friendly robot, that would have put it in the realm of the three dogs and cat which she was already familiar with.
    • Ditto mine. Considering how she adores & coddles her inanimate doll, methinks "sentience" to the very young is a matter of affinity & affection, not activity.

      • I used to think this of my (far) younger sister, until the day she did a "you idiot ripley" on me around about the time she was 2 and a half - I picked up her doll and attributed an act to it, at which point I was told not to be stupid as it is only a toy. But until the time she was 8 or 9, she would still treat that doll as alive.

        Perhaps your kids are smarter than you are giving them credit for?
  • Friendly robots are sentient. Friendliness is a quality that only sentient beings can have. If your robot is not sentient, then it is only simulating friendliness.

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:55PM (#33910474) Homepage

    "Your plastic pal who's fun to be with"

    • "Go stick your head in a pig" (Hey /., your lameness filter is too loose. Maybe you should freeze an account for fifty fucking years after each post! Please stick your collective heads in a pig.)
  • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @01:56PM (#33910494)
    I have a 2yr old and he thinks Train set is Sentient. So I don't really think this is any kind of breakthrough.
    • I have a 2yr old and he thinks Train set is Sentient. So I don't really think this is any kind of breakthrough.

      I remember feeling guilt about picking an unblemished apple over a bruised one. I must have developed my empathy skills fairly quickly though; only a few months later I was already trying to create a new species of flightless insects.

      It seems that the membership of certain [peta.org] organisations [armyofgod.com] are still in the infantile stages though.

  • Do not let the robot hold your baby! I have it on very good authority that this is a bad idea.

  • I'm not debating whether or not the babies actually thought the robot was sentient or not (who knows what babies think?). But it's a logical leap to assume that "gaze following" equates to "sentience". It might be that the babies know enough about technology to know that even a robot can focus a gaze. Assuming that a baby is smart enough to know what a gaze is implies they're smart enough to know what a robot is.

  • In related news, it was discovered that AI researchers thought sentient robots were friendly.

  • In a related study, infants judged geeks to be 18% less human than the robots.


  • I would imagine that robots, in turn, think friendly babies are sentient.
  • by jpc1957 ( 1820122 ) on Friday October 15, 2010 @06:59PM (#33913936)
    my 3 year old thought a 5 dollar motorized bug was real, same reaction as to a real bug. Took her months before she could tell the difference. I don't think the study say's anything about 'sentience', perception/recognition develops over time naturally, ability to identify/distinguish will of course vary based on age/ability/culture....
  • Well, they think imaginary people are real, so why not?
  • Sentient =/= Sapient (Score:3, Informative)

    by AP31R0N ( 723649 ) on Saturday October 16, 2010 @12:14PM (#33918128)

    Robots that respond to their environment are essentially sentient. Dogs certainly are sentient. Neither are SAPIENT.

    Sci-fi has misused the work sentient when they meant to say sapient.

    That does NOT mean that sentient means self aware, it means the sci-fi writers and everyone else who says sentient when they mean sapient are WRONG.

    Yes, even if the dictionary agrees with them.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.