Whether you’re already planning what your mechanised personal assistant will look like in the future or worrying that machines will inherit the Earth, there is no denying that human beings are fascinated by robots. It seems that some chimpanzees can’t get enough of them either.
We are naturally inclined to investigate a machine that looks or sounds human, even if we know that it isn’t quite like us in every respect. Chimpanzees, it turns out, may be intrigued by robots, too. In fact, when they are introduced to one, they often socialise with it, offer it toys and invite it to play, as they might when meeting a human or a fellow chimpanzee.
In a study published in Animal Cognition, our team, from the University of Portsmouth and Yerkes National Primate Center gave 16 chimpanzees an interactive robot that could move its head and limbs independently. The robot was developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. It could give out sounds like chimpanzee laughter from a small speaker in its chest that was covered by a dress. At the beginning of the experiment, the chimps saw a human interacting with the robot and were then allowed to see it for themselves.
While six chimpanzees gave the robot objects by putting them as close to the it as possible and requesting a response from it in this way, two chimpanzees, Faye and Jarred, even offered it toys.
Across the group, behaviour ranged from hardly being interested in the robot to banging on the side of the cage to get its attention before inviting it to play. Almost all of the 16 chimpanzees showed a level of active communication with the robot, such as gestures and expressions.
The chimps recognised and showed increased interest when the robot imitated their body movements. This could be seen in the animated body movements and expressions directed towards the robot. These behaviours occurred significantly less often when the robot showed random body movements, although there was still interest in the robot.
The chimpanzees were less interested when the robot imitated the bodily movements of a human. In this case, they primarily gazed at it and only occasionally displayed movements and expressions. Perhaps they even detect differences between being imitated themselves and watching others being imitated. There are, however, alternative explanations and further research is needed on this. The use of robots could come in quite handy here.
In one case, a chimp laughed at the robot while gesturing play. This finding is interesting as apes, unlike humans, do not laugh out loud just because they see something funny. They need to be fully involved in the social interaction in order to laugh.
Studies have shown that humans are willing to communicate with robots and they even want to “help” them, although they know they are not real. We know that a robot cannot feel or even fully respond to us, but the temptation to try is irresistible. We even respond positively when they smile.
Now that we know chimps are open to interacting with robots, it also becomes possible to think about observing their social interactions in a highly controlled setting without the presence of a living being. In this study, researchers were able to observe the simplest of social interactions with an animated “someone”. Such simple interactions are likely to provide a foundation for more complex social behaviour to emerge.