Scientists say bots can trick us into thinking we’re interacting socially and slow down our reactions

It has long been known that making eye contact with a robot can be an unsettling experience. Scientists even have a name for this unnerving feeling: the “uncanny valley.”

Now, thanks to researchers in Italy, we also know it’s more than just a feeling.

A team at the Istituto Italiano Di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa has shown how a robot’s gaze can fool us into thinking we’re interacting socially and slow down our ability to make decisions.

“The gaze is a very important social cue that we use on a daily basis when interacting with others,” said Professor Agnieszka Wijkowska, lead author of the research published Wednesday in the journal Science Robots.

“The question is whether the gaze of a robot will trigger very similar mechanisms in the human brain as the gaze of another human.”

The team asked 40 volunteers to play a video game “chicken” – in which each player had to decide whether to let a car drive straight into another or swerve to avoid a collision – against a robot sitting in front of it.

Between rounds, players had to look at the bot, which sometimes looked back and other times looked away.

In each scenario, the scientists collected data on behavior and neural activity through electroencephalography (EEG), which detects electrical activity in the brain.

“Our results show that, in fact, the human brain processes a robot’s gaze as a social signal, and this signal has an impact on the way we make decisions, on the strategies we use in the game and also on our responses,” said Wikoska.

“The robot’s mutual gaze affected decisions by delaying them, so humans were much slower to make decisions in the game.”

The findings have implications for where and how humanoid robots can be deployed in the future.

“Once we understand when robots trigger social harmony, we can decide in what kind of context this is desirable and beneficial for humans and in what context this should not happen,” said Wikowska.

According to a report by the International Federation of Robotics, global sales of professional service robots have already jumped 32 percent to $11.2 billion (€9.4 billion) between 2018 and 2019.

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