Don’t look now: How a robot’s gaze can affect the human brain

Sept 1 (Reuters) – It has long been known that making eye contact with a robot can be an unsettling experience. Scientists even have a name for the queasy feeling: the « uncanny valley ».

Now, thanks to researchers in Italy, we also know it’s more than just a feeling.

A team at the Istituto Italiano Di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa have shown how a robot’s gaze can trick us into thinking we are socially interacting and slow our ability to make decisions.

« Gaze is an extremely important social signal that we employ on a day-to-day basis when interacting with others, » said Professor Agnieszka Wykowska, lead author of the research, published on Wednesday in the journal Science Robots.

The team asked 40 volunteers to play a video game of « chicken » – where each player has to decide whether to allow a car to drive straight towards another car or to deviate to avoid a collision – against a humanoid robot sitting opposite them.

Between rounds players had to look at the robot, which would sometimes look back and other times look away.

In each scenario, the scientists collected data on behaviour and neural activity via electroencephalography (EEG), which detects electrical activity in the brain.

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