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People are prepared to save a robot at the expense of human lives, under certain conditions. For example thinking that the robot can experience pain. This is shown by research conducted by a team led by Sari Nijssen from Radboud University, in collaboration with Barbara Müller from Radboud University and Markus Paulus from LMU Munich.
We can’t picture our life without robots these days. They perform all kinds of specialized, and sometimes even dangerous, tasks for us. Think of the detection and dismantling of mines, or robots that are used as help in the household or nursing assistant. This raises interesting questions, such as: how do we see these robots and how do we behave towards them?
Behavioral scientist Sari Nijssen explains that It is known, for example, that soldiers can mourn a robot that is used in the army to clean up mines. There have even been actual funerals for such robots. Researchers would like to investigate how far that empathy for robots goes, and which moral principles apply in dealing with robots. As of today very little research has been done on this.
Robot lives versus human lives
The central question in this research was to what extent people would be willing to sacrifice robots to save human lives. Subjects were confronted with a moral dilemma akin to whether they would sacrifice an individual to save a group of ordinary people. In the different scenarios that were presented, the individual that would need to be sacrificed was a human being, a humanized robot or a robot that was only presented as a machine.
The research shows that the more a robot was seen as human, the more difficult the dilemma became for the subjects. If the robot was described as a being with its own thoughts, experiences, pain and emotions, the subjects were less inclined to sacrifice the robot in favor of anonymous people. According to Nijssen, this means that people, under certain circumstances, assign a moral status to robots. 'A human-looking robot can evoke feelings or behavior that contrasts with the function for which they have been developed - to help us. The question, according to Nijssen, is whether or not we want this.
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