Dogs are man’s best friend… right?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

dog and robot
The dog is curiously sniffing the PeopleBot². Do I smell a new friendship in the air?

What’s super cute, loving, playful, and loyal? Dogs! These furry companions are often called “man’s best friend,” but what if the pooches aren’t actually as loyal as people believe them to be? According to a social robot experiment, these flea-ridden traitors have no problem replacing their human masters. What fickle friends!

Researchers wanted to test whether dogs could become buddies with a robot, so they gathered 41 canines to interact with the “PeopleBot².” This human-sized robot essentially resembles a machine found in a smelly old gym, except it has clean white gloves attached to it. In other words, it’s a gigantic chunk of metal that looks nothing like a human, let alone a friend. Would the dogs treat it like a person?

In order to find out, the researchers ran two experiments. In the first trial, the PeopleBot² was programmed to be asocial – not very friendly. It made typical robot-like sounds such as beeping, whirring, and whistling. When the researchers brought a pooch into their lab, their actual human master “talked” with the robot, but not verbally. Instead, the dog owners interacted with a keyboard located on the PeopleBot². The dogs weren’t as friendly with the robots in this asocial condition. When the researchers made the robot point to a bowl of dog food while beeping noisily, the mutt didn’t approach the loud machine too often.

In the second trial, however, the PeopleBot² was programmed to be much friendlier. Since it played pre-recorded human voices, the dog owners could carry out  a “real” verbal conversation in front of their pet. In fact, the machine would even call the dog by name. In this social condition, the mutts hung around with the robots much longer and seemed to enjoy the machine’s company. As long as the PeopleBot² was warm and affectionate, the dogs counted them as a friend.

According to these results, canines are a perfect way to determine whether robots are truly social. If there is any scientist in the process of building a friendly machine, they should probably have a “bring-your-dog-to-work” day as often as possible.

Image courtesy of Eniko Kubinyi of Wroclaw University of Technology. Video courtesy of Kelsey Atherton.