Mason psychologists use robot research to explore what makes us human

A future with robots is closer than we think, and a team of professors and students from George Mason University’s Department of Psychology are helping to bring that future closer to reality.

Eva Wiese, assistant professor in the department, along with five doctoral students and 15 undergraduate students, is studying how to make interacting with a robot similar to interacting with a human.

This research is unique because it uses methods from social neuroscience and applies them to human-robot interaction, said Wiese, who came to George Mason three years ago from Germany.

The goal of the project is make robots more “human-like,” she said.

“We observe, for instance, what parts of the brain are activated when two strangers interact and start to trust each other, and compare this to the pattern of brain activation that is caused when humans interact with a robot on a similar task,” Wiese said.

The results from these experiments are applied to the design of robots with the goal of identifying physical and behavioral features that robots need to display in order be perceived as human-like.

While this research may bring us closer to having robots in our everyday lives, it also could lead to creating companions for children with autism spectrum disorder. In the next phase of the project, researchers want to investigate whether interacting with social robots can help children with ASD develop important social skills, such as gaze following and action understanding.

These children often have problems with motor control, eye-gaze attention and identification of emotional states based on facial expressions. At an early age, these deficits lead to a lack of social interaction with others.

“One of the main problems in ASD is that brain areas that process social information are not as strongly connected as they are in children without ASD,” Wiese said. This sets up a cycle in which children with autism get easily overwhelmed by social situations and therefore avoid social interactions. This in turn aggravates their symptoms and leads to altered social skills in adulthood, she said.

Researchers at Mason hope that interacting with robots, which have easy-to-read facial expressions and limited action repertoires, can strengthen the connectivity between social brain areas and improve the social skills of children with ASD.

Doctoral students aren’t the only ones who get to participate in this innovative study. Kellon Jones, junior psychology and neuroscience major, got to work directly with participants and collect data.

“After helping with this study, I took a liking to research and this lead me to pursue behavioral and cognition studies in animals,” Jones said.

Jones’ fascination with the human mind won’t stop after he gets his bachelor’s degree. He hopes to eventually earn his PhD in neuroscience to achieve his goal of becoming a neuropsychologist.

Using psychological and neuroscientific methods to study how humans interact with machines gives students the opportunity to experience an applied area of psychology, said Wiese.

“Students can focus on product design and user experience research and work for companies like Google or Apple. It’s a great opportunity for students who like research, but don’t want to spend their lives in an academic institution.”