Can machines think? Interaction and perspective taking with robots investigated via fMRI

Sören Krach, Frank Hegel, Britta Wrede, Gerhard Sagerer, Ferdinand Binkofski, Tilo Kircher


BACKGROUND: When our PC goes on strike again we tend to curse it as if it were a human being. Why and under which circumstances do we attribute human-like properties to machines? Although humans increasingly interact directly with machines it remains unclear whether humans implicitly attribute intentions to them and, if so, whether such interactions resemble human-human interactions on a neural level. In social cognitive neuroscience the ability to attribute intentions and desires to others is being referred to as having a Theory of Mind (ToM). With the present study we investigated whether an increase of human-likeness of interaction partners modulates the participants' ToM associated cortical activity.

METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: By means of functional magnetic resonance imaging (subjects n = 20) we investigated cortical activity modulation during highly interactive human-robot game. Increasing degrees of human-likeness for the game partner were introduced by means of a computer partner, a functional robot, an anthropomorphic robot and a human partner. The classical iterated prisoner's dilemma game was applied as experimental task which allowed for an implicit detection of ToM associated cortical activity. During the experiment participants always played against a random sequence unknowingly to them. Irrespective of the surmised interaction partners' responses participants indicated having experienced more fun and competition in the interaction with increasing human-like features of their partners. Parametric modulation of the functional imaging data revealed a highly significant linear increase of cortical activity in the medial frontal cortex as well as in the right temporo-parietal junction in correspondence with the increase of human-likeness of the interaction partner (computer<functional robot<anthropomorphic robot<human).

CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Both regions correlating with the degree of human-likeness, the medial frontal cortex and the right temporo-parietal junction, have been associated with Theory-of-Mind. The results demonstrate that the tendency to build a model of another's mind linearly increases with its perceived human-likeness. Moreover, the present data provides first evidence of a contribution of higher human cognitive functions such as ToM in direct interactions with artificial robots. Our results shed light on the long-lasting psychological and philosophical debate regarding human-machine interaction and the question of what makes humans being perceived as human.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number7
Pages (from-to)e2597
Publication statusPublished - 09.07.2008


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