Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians apparently have strong feelings about the robots they use and work with on the battlefield. Dr. Julie Carpenter at the University of Washington interviewed 23 personnel who used robots on a regular basis in the field, and her study showed, according to PBS.org, “that . . . soldiers often anthropomorphized their robots, assigned them human attributes such as genders and names, and even displayed a kind of empathy towards the machines.”
But is this treatment of robots on the battlefield so unusual?
The responses in the comments section raised that very question. Indeed, what was most intriguing about the article was the way in which respondents ruminated about that fact that humans have been doing this sort of thing – naming inanimate objects, such as guns, ships, and so forth – for centuries. Some respondents even suggested the study was a waste of academic funds, something that is – in my view – unfair. While it is true we have always had the tendency to name non-living things, the robot and our affection for this thing is a peculiar one.
This is especially true when one thinks of George Lucas’s Star Wars.
While obviously fictional, the human characters in the movie interact with robots in the same way they interact with other creatures. Lucas did that for a reason. And who can forget the charming C-3PO and ever-so-sweet and cute R2-D2? These two characters left a lasting impression on millions of children as well as adults. Those were the two famous robots from the movie, too. There were far more robots, and it is clear that these machines, or at least it can be interpreted in that way, experienced emotions and even physical pain. After all, who can forget the scene in which droids are being tortured? Furthermore, we experience the fear of that occurring through the lens of C-3PO and R2-D2 when they wind up briefly in Jabba the Hut’s torture chamber with screaming droids. I will never forget, when I saw that scene for the first time as a very little kid, the droid whose feet was being burned. It left a lasting impression, as I can remember that image as clear as day right now.
As for the actual robots that some soldiers use in war zones, Carpenter wrote that the emotional attachment could have an impact upon a soldier’s decision-making. Again, the responses to the article were interesting when referencing this part of her study. Many soldiers responded and made it clear that they would be more inclined to react emotionally to a fellow soldier being wounded than a robot.
Carpenter, of course, is not the first to study empathy for robots, and she certainly won’t be the last.