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My robot friend? Researcher studies servicemembers' attachment to field robots

Robots have become an integral part of the modern military, whether servicemembers are working beside them or shooting at them for practice.

But what happens as robots become more human-like, and warfighters begin developing actual feelings for them?

Well, that’s already happening to some degree, according to Julie Carpenter, who examined the phenomenon as part of her recently completed doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In “The Quiet Professional: An investigation of U.S. military Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel interactions with everyday field robots,” Carpenter found that servicemembers who use robots develop a strong range of emotions, such as frustration, anger and even grief when the robots are destroyed.

“They were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet,” Carpenter said in an interview posted on the UofW website.

She interviewed 23 explosive ordnance personnel, from all branches of service, who use remote-controlled robots in their work.

Some operators “reported they saw their robots as an extension of themselves and felt frustrated with technical limitations or mechanical issues because it reflected badly on them,” the interview said.

Many of the users named their robots, often after a celebrity, wife or girlfriend. They usually painted the name on the robot.

Still, despite their attachment to the robots, the servicemembers told Carpenter that personal feelings about them didn’t affect decisions to send them into dangerous situations.

“They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool, but then they would add ‘poor little guy,’ or they’d say they had a funeral for it,” Carpenter said in the university interview. “These robots are critical tools they maintain, rely on, and use daily.”

But Carpenter said in the interview that she thinks the Pentagon needs to be thinking about how ever-more human-like robots will affect warfighters down the line.

“You don’t want someone to hesitate using one of these robots if they have feelings toward the robot that goes beyond a tool,” she said on the website. “If you feel emotionally attached to something, it will affect your decision-making.”

olson.wyatt@stripes.com
Twitter: @WyattwOlson

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