If you see a film in which robots are mistreated and you find yourselves sympathising with them, you’re not alone. It’s a feeling that shouldn’t logically make sense, but it’s widespread. One study, done in Germany, shows that our brains react negatively when we see a robot hit or broken by a human being. There are plenty of other examples of how people are naturally inclined to care for robots. This can happen even with robots that look nothing like humans or animals and don’t even communicate, having been designed for other purposes entirely. Take the famous robot hoover that won the hearts of the writer Patricia Marx and millions of other men and women.
Suffice to say, according to the contraption’s inventor Colin Angle, about 80% of people who own this cleaning robot have given it a name. And many of them are alarmed when the hoover sends them a notification on their smart phone, telling them it’s got stuck somewhere. But why do people name their robot hoovers and never other things they use all the time, like their smart phones, computers and microwaves?
Before answering that, it should be stressed that this phenomenon is by no means limited to houses. Even a few soldiers have gone a bit soft over military robots. In 2007, for instance, a colonel stopped an exercise in which the classic military robot TALON was being very badly damaged, saying it was “cruel”. A similar robot was given a medal and a 21-gun salute in farewell at a sort of military funeral in its honour.