7:36 am EST, December 10, 2015

From Wall-E to BB-8: Why do we think robots are ‘cute’?

Turns out there's an actual, scientific reason.

Robots are mechanical metal machines built by scientists. So why is the Star Wars droid BB-8 so frickin’ cute?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that R2-D2 is most kids’ favorite Star Wars character. But in all likelihood, R2 will be kicked to the curb after The Force Awakens, because there’s a new droid in town.

BB-8 is the tiny, round, white and orange droid, set to follow Rey (Daisy Ridley) around like an over-excited puppy — and fans love it. Not because it’s cleverly designed, not because it’s a technological marvel, but because it’s “cute.”


….And so it goes on, hundreds of thousands of fans all proclaiming BB-8 “cute.” So cute, in fact, that Sphero is able to sell a tiny, app-controlled version of it for hundreds of dollars.

BB-8 is not the only cute robot, of course. R2-D2 was probably the first to really tug at our heartstrings, with Wall-E, Big Hero 6‘s Baymax and the Iron Giant following suit.

And it turns out, the science behind why we’re able to sympathise and empathise with these non-living objects is pretty simple.

If it walks like a duck…

As we know, human beings are capable of having both empathy and sympathy for inanimate objects, even things that don’t actually resemble life forms at all.

This wall plug, for example, will probably make you feel feelings:


It’s why cartoons work. It’s why Toy Story was such a smash hit.

Add in sound, motion and the ability to interact with its surroundings, and of course robots will only intensify those feelings.

Especially small children might feel empathy for robots, as they are basically like their toys come alive — an extension and validation of their imagination. When they’re friendly and make chirping noises, they’re basically like pets.

But we aren’t children, we’re grown-ass humans legitimately making high-pitched squealing noises when BB-8 peeks around a corner. So why?!

Why robots are cute, according to science

In 2013, neuroscientists performed an extensive study of the human brain, to explore exactly why and how we have empathy for robots.

As reported by the Smithsonian Magazine, the brain displays the same neural patterns for robots on-screen as for humans. That’s because of the human being’s incredible capacity to forget, and to obscure certain, apparently irrelevant factors, such as the fact that the robot was engineered.

“When participants were shown videos of a robot (a product called Pleo, which resembles a dinosaur) petted, tickled and fed, areas in their limbic structures — a region of the brain believed to be involved in emotional responses — activated. When they were shown videos of a human getting a massage, the same sorts of neural activity occurred.”


Interestingly, our responses to seeing robots mistreated were far less intense than when seeing the same things happen to a human. The article suggests that this is because we don’t consider the robots to be human; we consider them to be more like pets, which for some people means that their lives are less valuable (these are the people that have never loved and lost a pet, clearly).

Of course these findings aren’t exactly surprising, but it’s comforting to know that there’s a legitimate neurological reason why you think BB-8 is the cutest thing ever. You’re not crazy, you’re just human.

Our empathy for robots means that we are more likely to trust them, and open up to them, like scientists discovered in this fascinating BBC article. Conspiracy theorists suggest that our ability to feel empathy for robots will eventually be our downfall, as they are, of course, not able to feel the same way about us.

For now, let’s just enjoy The Force Awakens, and try to forget about the fact that Siri already knows enough about us to ruin our lives…

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