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Humans befriend robot stick in Calgary experiment

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 Calgary researchers set out to explore the emotional impact of abstract robot motion on humans. (John Harris / Ehud Sharlin / University of Calgary) A video released as part of a University of Calgary study on emotional relationships between people and robots proves that under the right circumstances, humans can make friends with almost anything - even a mechanical stick.
Researchers John Harris and Ehud Sharlin, who specialize in Human-Robot Interaction at the Department of Computer Science's interactions lab, recruited 30 volunteers to meet a machine they call "The Stem."

Designed for visual simplicity, the robotic stick has no distinguishing visual features aside from being a straight moving line, fixed at one end. It is said to have a significant range of motion and a wide reach, but even at full power, The Stem is weak enough to be physically manipulated by a young child.

Participants were brought into a room one by one, left alone with only the robot stick, and instructed to "think aloud and interact freely" with it.

The results were varied; some people wanted to play with the robot as if it were a pet, while others sat back and waved, mirrored its movements, or spoke to it, saying things like "I don't want to fight you robot" and "hello, I'm over here, come down."

Seventeen out of the 30 participants told researchers that they felt some of The Stem's motions were dangerous, scary, or intimidating, while 10 people saw it "dancing."

But as time went on, almost all of the participants began to interact with the stick in some way as though it were a living being, much like Tom Hanks' character does in the film Cast Away with his best friend Wilson -- a volleyball.

"Many of our participants engaged in seemingly emotional and unexpected ways with our very simple, almost purely abstract robot," reads the study's paper, called Exploring Emotive Actuation and Its Role in Human-Robot Interaction.

"We see great promise in these findings: users' ability (or is it need?) to be deeply engaged with abstract robotic motion is, we believe, powerful."

Have you ever been emotionally attached or engaged with a moving, but non-living object? Share your stories below.

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