When Robot Eyes Gaze Back at Humans, Something Changes in Our Brain And Behavior

It can be difficult to ignore the fact that you are being watched by someone. It can be hard to keep your eyes on them and not let their gaze touch you.
It doesn't seem to matter if they are alive or dead.

Scientists have created an experiment in which people play against robots as part of new research.

If the robot looked up at the human players during the session, it ended up affecting the participants' behavior and strategy in the game a change that could be discerned in measurements of their neural activity recorded by electroencephalography (EEG) during the experiment.

According to Agnieszka Wykowska, cognitive neuroscientist at the Italian Institute of Technology, "If the robot looks directly at you during the time you need to make a move on the next step, it will be more difficult for you to make a choice."

"Your brain will also have to use expensive and laborious processes to try to ignore the gaze of the robot."

The experiment involved 40 participants sitting across from an iCub robot. They competed in a game called 'Chicken', where two simulated cars raced head-on towards each other.

The game would stop just before impact. Participants were asked to gaze up at the robot, which would either look back or meet their gaze. Participants had to choose whether to allow their cars to run ahead or deviate to one side.

The experiment revealed that although the robot's gaze did not influence individual players' choices, it did increase their response time. Participants responded faster when the iCub turned its back.

According to their paper, researchers explained that the delayed responses among-subjects following mutual gaze could indicate that mutual gaze entailed a greater cognitive effort, such as by eliciting more reasoning over iCub’s choices or a higher degree of suppression from the (potentially distracting), gaze stimulus which was not relevant to the task.

Representation of iCub, and a participant. (IIT).

Researchers found that the change in player behavior was due to synchronized beta activity, a brain wave pattern previously associated with suppressing attention.

Furthermore, the experiment showed that participants were more likely to be exposed to averted gaze (where robots did not stare back) and to disengage from social interactions with the iCub. This allowed them to focus on their game with less distraction.

The iCub robot is a humanoid robot that mimics the appearance and shape of humans. It's therefore not surprising that robots can be triggered by our attentional processes.

Researchers say it could be used to design interactive and more advanced robots in the future.

Wykowska states that robots will become more prevalent in everyday life.

"This is why it is so important to understand the technological aspects of robot designs, but also the human side. How the human brain processes the behavioral signals sent by robots."

Science Robotics reports the findings.