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Caring, Empathetic Robots the Goal of Ou Professor's Research

By Oklahoma Daily

September 20, 2011

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University of Oklahoma professor Dean Hougen is studying whether robots can learn to care for one another, and possibly for humans.

"I am hoping one of the things we will evolve is the capacity for empathy, to look at another individual and say, 'I see what this person needs. I am going to respond to it,' " Hougen says.

The researchers realized that most organisms have parents that exhibit nurturing behaviors toward their young, teaching them how to survive in the world.

The researchers taught the robots to learn by placing a computer-simulated robot in the middle of a circle with a light switch and a light bulb. The goal was to manipulate the robot to turn on the switch, then sit under the bulb to charge itself. The researchers then changed the experiment to have two robots in the circle, one acting as a parent and one as a child, Hougen says. Both robots were equipped with algorithms that gave them the ability to turn on the switch, but only the child robot would benefit from sitting under the light.

"Over time, the parent learned to go to the light switch while the child went to the light," says Hougen, who thinks the results show that robots, acting as parents, could learn to be nurturers and child robots could learn to be nurtured.

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