Admit it. Your favorite character in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Data, right? You’re nodding your head, I see. Good, because Data, an android, is my favorite as well. People love robots. There’s something uniquely fascinating about interacting with something so like us.
Some of us secretly want a robot as our friend. Based on a study released this month, chimpanzees wholeheartedly agree.
Sixteen chimpanzees recently got to meet Robota, an 18-inch tall doll-like robot created by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology especially for them. Robota is an interactive robot doll that can move her head and limbs, as well as emit chimp-like sounds from a speaker in her chest.
A study team from the United Kingdom’s University of Portsmouth decided to use Robota to gain a better understanding of how chimpanzees relate socially in an interactive setting without humans present. The results prove yet again that chimps are more like us than we may realize.
First, each chimpanzee observed a human interacting with Robota. The researcher then put the doll down facing the chimp and looked away as though doing something else. A number of the 16 chimps took this opportunity to try to communicate with Robota.
When they saw Robota make small movements with its limbs or head, nearly all the chimps attempted communication to some degree, using facial expressions and physical gestures. Some banged on a cage to try to get Robota’s attention and then invited her to play with them.
Six chimps tried to engage with the robot doll by giving her objects, placing them as close to her as they could, and then waiting for a response. Two chimps, Jarred and Faye, even offered Robota their toys to play with.
Is your heart melting yet?
What the chimps seemed to love most was seeing Robota imitate them. They became particularly engaged when they realized Robota was imitating their own body movements. They understood that she was imitating them, and this fact was much more interesting to them than Robota’s random human-like movements. It was also more interesting than watching her imitate humans.
One chimp even laughed at Robota while inviting her to play. In chimp behavioral parlance, that’s huge.
Dr. Marina Davila-Ross, participant in this study and senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, sees that laugh as one of the most valuable and telling indicators to come out of this study.
“This finding is interesting as apes, unlike humans, do not laugh out loud just because they see something funny,” she wrote in an article for The Conversation. ”They need to be fully involved in the social interaction in order to laugh.”
In other words, the chimp who laughed was 100 percent focused on Robota and was interacting with her in a meaningful way.
“It was especially fascinating to see that the chimps recognized when they were being imitated by the robot because imitation helps to promote their social bonding,” she added.
Social bonding is critical for chimpanzees. They live in social groupings, often traveling in a smaller sub-group but joining up with larger communities to feed or find fertile females. Chimps bond with other chimps in relationships than can last their entire lives.
“In our other studies we have found that humans will also react to robots in ways which suggest a willingness to communicate, even though they know the robots are not real,” said Dr. Davila-Ross. ”It’s a demonstration of the basic human desire to communicate and it appears that chimpanzees share this readiness to communicate with others.”
This study demonstrates that chimps love to make new friends and perhaps expand their social groups. Even if it’s only a robot, many of them will make an honest effort towards friendly interaction with another creature and are excited to see anything that seems like reciprocation.
Sounds like a chimpanzee friend would be even nicer to have than a robot friend, doesn’t it?
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