This finding comes from two separate studies carried out by the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany.
The first study asked 40 participants to watch a video where a small dinosaur-shaped robot was either treated violently or affectionately. Their physiological arousal (heart rate, pupil dilation, perspiration) was measured while they watched the video, and they were asked for their emotional state after watching the videos. When the dinobot was treated violently, the participants felt worse and showed more physiological arousal.
The second study is slightly more objective: 14 participants were scanned using functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) while they watched videos of a human, robot, and inanimate object being treated affectionately and violently.
While the inanimate object did not trigger a neurological response, the affectionate human and robot videos both triggered similar responses in the limbic system — a region of the forebrain that contains the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus, which are involved in emotional and other autonomic nervous system (fight-or-flight) responses.
A similar response from the limbic system was seen in the abusive videos, but participants appeared to show more empathetic concern for humans than robots.
While these findings probably don’t come as a surprise… these two studies are exceptional because they objectively show our empathy for robots.
Human-robot interaction, or HRI, is a notoriously tricky field because we ourselves aren’t entirely clear on how we should interact with robots. While our neurological and physiological responses clearly show that we experience empathy for robots, the researchers would have got very different results if they had asked the participants if they felt sorry for the abused robots, because we’re not sure if we should feel sorry for robots.