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Robot And Chimpanzee: It's Evolution At Work

Humans and chimpanzees — like this individual at a zoo in Australia — are animals who have evolved to forge extensive and elaborate social connections.
Humans and chimpanzees — like this individual at a zoo in Australia — are animals who have evolved to forge extensive and elaborate social connections.

In the movie Robot and Frank, made in 2012 and set in the near future, an elderly man named Frank (played by Frank Langella) is losing his memory. His adult son, concerned because his father lives alone, gifts him with a robot caretaker that is humanoid in appearance and prone to dialoguing with Frank. At first scornful of, and highly resistant to, co-habitating with a machine, Frank comes to consider this unnamed machine his friend.

Even when the robot reminds Frank that he himself is aware that he's not a person, and that his memory can be wiped without undue loss, Frank treats him as just that, anyway — as a person.

Robot and Frank's plot reminded me of something I witnessed about seven years ago when I attended a conference in Chicago at which Anne Foerst talked about the robot Kismet. When Foerst showed video clips similar to this one that showcased Kismet's ability to convey emotions, we in the audience responded audibly (oohs, aahs, laughter), as if we were watching a precocious child or some other clever person.

But why do we respond this way to robots? Like the character Frank in the movie, we grasp that robots do what their programmers want them to do. We know very well that we aren't interacting with persons — an assertion I make even as I'm keenly following a debate over the very definition of "person." As NPR reported on Tuesday, a fascinating legal case challenges us to think of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, as persons in their own right.

The answer to the "why" question about our drive to connect with robots must be an evolutionary one, I think, and thus not set apart from questions of chimpanzees' cognitive, emotional and behavioral similarities to us.

We humans, over millions of years, have been selected not only to communicate with, but also to want deeply to communicate with, other beings who share our world. Communication was and is intimately tied to cooperation and deception, to forging alliances and battling rivals, to tracking, hunting and domesticating other animals — to the reproductive success that is the name of the game in evolution. Nowadays that deeply ingrained drive spills over to include our interactions with machines. And a new study shows that chimpanzees display the same impulses.

Published online in the journal Animal Cognition, a paper by Marina Davila-Ross, Johanna Hutchinson, Jamie L. Russell, Jennifer Schaeffer, Aude Billard, William D. Hopkins and Kim A. Bard reports the outcome of testing 16 captive chimpanzees' responses to a doll-like interactive robot, 45 centimeters tall.

Robota, as the machine is called (and which to my eyes looks like a futuristic American Girl doll) is capable of moving her head and limbs in certain specified arcs.

Almost all the apes freaked out a bit when first introduced to Robota: their hair stood on end and they threw boxes around their cages. But all calmed down before the period of research testing began. Also before testing, the chimpanzees watched a human-robot interaction, enabling them to comprehend that the strange creature that had entered their world was capable of relating with others.

Here are the research results I found most intriguing. Robota, controlled by an experimenter at a distance from the chimpanzees, was made in the imitation condition of the experiment to copy the chimpanzees' head, arm and leg movements. In control periods, she instead moved randomly or in synch with the chimpanzees' movements but by activating a different body part, so that when the ape turned her head the robot would move her arm.

Chimpanzees who were imitated by Robota showed active interest in her for significantly longer periods than did their counterpart apes who were not imitated.

Also, the chimpanzees directly solicited interaction with the robot, by offering Robota toys and other objects, and reaching out to her.

Ross et al. write that their study "provides strong evidence that chimpanzees, like humans, respond with interaction-promoting behaviors to even the most rudimentary cues of an agent."

Even with a robot that hardly resembles a promising social partner, in other words, the chimpanzees became invested in setting up a kind of communicatory dialogue. And they, like humans who are imitated, responded positively when their robot partner copied their actions.

Humans and chimpanzees are animals who (along with others) have evolved to forge extensive and elaborate social connections. Now we and our closest kin, when offered the chance, extend those social circles to embrace newly created creatures that are, perhaps, at their own dawn of evolution as members of our society.

Barbara's most recent book is How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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