Washington, July 9 : A collaborative study has for the first time investigated the question as to why and under what circumstances people perceive that machines have human-like capabilities and "mental qualities", and how such processes modulate their brain activity.
During the study led by Dr. Soren Krach and Prof. Tilo Kircher from the RWTH Aachen University, in collaboration with the Department of "Social Robotics" (Bielefeld University) and the Neuroimage Nord (Hamburg), participants were playing an easy computer game (the prisoners' dilemma game) against four different game partners-a regular computer notebook, a functionally designed Lego-robot, the anthropomorphic robot BARTHOC Jr. and a human.
All game partners played an absolutely similar sequence, which was not, however, revealed to the participants.
The researchers found that neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex as well as in the right temporo-parietal junction linearly increased with the degree of "human-likeness" of interaction partners.
According to them, the more the respective game partners exhibited human-like features, the more the participants engaged cortical regions associated with mental state attribution/mentalizing.
The researchers said that the participants also stated in a debriefing questionnaire that they enjoyed the interactions most when their respective interaction partners displayed the most human features, and accordingly evaluated their opponents as being more intelligent.
They claim that theirs is the first study to investigate the neuronal basics of direct human-robot interaction on a higher cognitive level, such as mentalizing.
They expect their findings to impact long-lasting psychological and philosophical debates regarding human-machine interactions, and especially the question of what causes humans to be perceived as human.
A research article on the study appears in the journal PLoS ONE.