Names, sadness, funerals: How troops interact with their robots

Thomas Phippen Thomas Phippen is acting editor in chief at the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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Bomb disposal troops sometimes treat their robotic tools like pets or even fellow humans, according to research by a newly minted University of Washington Ph.D.

In her dissertation on how humans interact robots, Julie Carpenter investigated whether military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel felt a special connection to the robots they operate, and how that relationship affected decision-making in the high-stress process of disarming a bomb.

In the dangerous work of disarming unexploded ordnance, like IEDs and roadside bombs, EOD robots are deployed to reduce the risk of human casualties.

Carpenter’s hopes to turn her dissertation, “The Quiet Professional: An investigation of U.S. military Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel interactions with everyday field robots,” into a book on human/robot interaction. Her research showed that while EOD personnel would put the mission first, they did experience a sense of loss when something happened to their robot.

“If the robot was disabled, they did experience immediate anger, frustration and sadness, in that order,” Carpenter said in an interview with the Daily Caller.

In an interview with the University of Washington, Carpenter said EOD troops “were very clear it was a tool, but at the same time, patterns in their responses indicated they sometimes interacted with the robots in ways similar to a human or pet.”

“They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool, but then they would add ‘poor little guy,’ or they’d say they had a funeral for it,” Carpenter said.

Some military personnel named their robots after celebrities and rockstars, some after wives, girlfriends or fiancés. Some robots had their names painted on their sides.

Carpenter’s research looks at the way humans have to adapt their expectations and perceptions of the technology they work with. As robots become more humanoid or animal-like, the ways humans treat the robot will change also. “That ambiguity is what I call the robot accommodation dilemma,” Carpenter told The Daily Caller.

Carpenter contrasted the model for human-to-human communication with another for human-to-technology interaction. Most of the time, the two styles do not overlap. But in small ways, the interaction model for technology may be changing.  “The EOD robot is and extremely critical tool.  It stands in for a human almost like an avatar,” Carpenter said.