Artificial Empathy: Towards Man and Robot Co-evolution

30 Sep 2019

The field of social robotics introduces robots able to interact socially with humans. Studying the resulting human-robot dynamics can provide humans with a new angle of self-observation.

STI Experts

Living with Robots, by Luisa Damiano and Paul Dumouchel, proposes the study of social robotics as a form of anthropology as well as a branch of engineering. The authors prepared the following summary argument for the Social Trends Institute.

“Artificial empathy” is a term we introduced in reference to contemporary social robotics, which aims to design and build robots that can interact with humans on the basis of emotional exchanges. The goal pursued by this research line is not merely to create a new type of machines – “social machines.” Research on artificial empathy is also driven by the wider ambition to inaugurate a new phase in human evolution: The era of co-evolution between humans and an artificial social species. This project involves the construction of robots which, rather than being simple tools at our service, can function as interlocutors – robots that are “social partners.” Anticipatory scenarios, both from fiction and science, present robotic agents that are capable of integrating the complex network of human relations, and of populating everyday life, based on their ability to interact through signals compatible with human social signals. Among these signals, social robotics recognizes the central role of affective signals. Researchers see the robots’ ability to communicate emotionally with humans as the essential condition that these machines must satisfy in order to be perceived and treated by their users not as mere objects, but as other social actors, as subjects within the interaction.

Presently, social robotics views these robots primarily as “collaborators.” That is, they are designed, and implemented, as artificial agents destined for various service roles within different spheres of our social ecologies – from domestic environments to public spaces. The main sectors targeted include not only entertainment, sales and information, but also assistance and mediation. Robotic agents of the current generation include therapeutic and educational mediators for children with special needs, personal assistants for the elderly to help them maintain their autonomy, and coaches and trainers in cognitive and motor rehabilitation programs. Typically these artificial agents are not conceived to take the place of, but to support or assist human operators. Current prototypes tend to produce results of interest, and to generate human-robot dynamics whose comprehension is one of the main challenges of contemporary research. However, the ability of these social robots to engage human agents in emotional communication dynamics leads research to explore the possibility of entrusting them with more socially significant roles.

The exploratory dimension is central to artificial empathy. Social robotics explicitly integrates this genuinely scientific dimension, which, from the times of early cybernetics characterized the engineering of “cognitive artefacts.” Every artificial agent designed to interact socially with human agents expresses a set of hypotheses about human emotionality and sociality. The introduction of one of these robots into any given social context is equivalent to a scientific experiment - a test of these hypotheses - and as a consequence constitutes also an inquiry into who we are. Therefore, social robotics, we argue, should be understood not only as a branch of engineering, but also as a science of human nature – a form of synthetic anthropology. Indeed, by developing machines able to communicate with us through our social signals, this science offers us a new angle of self-observation – opens a new road to self-knowledge.

Furthermore, as we argue in Living with Robots, social robotic agents, besides functioning as a means of human self-knowledge, are also a means of human transformation. The experiment that social robotics represents inevitably changes us and our world by revealing, amplifying and reorienting certain aspects of human sociality. What will these changes be? How will human society change? We do not yet know or understand, because these modifications are inseparable from the very process by which we will come to know and understand better both ourselves and our changing social universe. This circle, which is neither necessarily vicious nor virtuous, is far form being a paradox. Gaston Bachelard showed long ago that science discovers the world by transforming it, and, as Gilbert Simondon argued, “the artificial is induced nature.” This circle is the challenge that social robotics imposes upon us.

Luisa Damiano and Paul Dumouchel.


P. Dumouchel and L. Damiano, Living with Robots, Harvard University Press, 2017; Italian version published by Raffaello Cortina, 2019; Korean version published by HEEDAM, 2019; Original French version published by Seuil, 2016.