Could you be emotionally blackmailed by a cute robot?

German researchers have found that people can be ‘guilt-tripped’ by robots that display social acuity, suggesting that robotic devices and other forms of AI are becoming increasingly capable of appealing to our emotions.

In a study the results of which have been published in science journal PLOS One, researchers asked 89 participants to simply turn off SoftBank Robotics’ cute humanoid robot Nao after engaging in some basic interaction with it – so far, so easy, right?

Well, that was until Nao started begging not to be turned off... and telling 43 of the unwitting participants that he was “afraid of the dark”. Once confronted with the little android’s protestations, 30 of these participants took twice as long to turn him off as the control group, with 13 unwilling to turn him off at all.

Volunteers who experienced Nao acting more like a machine, asking only functional questions and not objecting to being turned off, had no such problem hitting the off switch – to them it seems he was simply an electronic device like a toaster or a laptop. The study’s abstract explains:

“Results show that participants rather let the robot stay switched on when the robot objected. After the functional interaction, people evaluated the robot as less likeable, which in turn led to a reduced stress experience after the switching off situation. 

“Furthermore, individuals hesitated longest when they had experienced a functional interaction in combination with an objecting robot. This unexpected result might be due to the fact that the impression people had formed based on the task-focused behavior of the robot conflicted with the emotional nature of the objection.”

The future’s looking cute

Not all participants declined to turn Nao off out of guilt – many reported that they were “surprised by his behaviour”, were “worried about doing the wrong thing”, or were simply “curious [as to] whether the robot would continue interacting” with them. Still, a large number apparently felt compassion for the humanoid robot, and were reluctant to do something against its will. So why do robots make us feel this way?

Although our compassion is usually reserved for living things, the rise of more human-looking machines means our natural urge to forge relationships can be exploited. After all, robot designers want us to actually enjoy interacting with their creations – just take a look at adorable androids like Kuri or Aeolus and it becomes very clear that our weakness for all things cute is absolutely being taken advantage of. 

With an emerging market for ‘companion’ robots for the elderly, and increasingly personable voice assistants like Apple’s Siri, these latest findings could have an impact on the way developers programme new AI technology.

Olivia Tambini

Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.