Botox, Empathy, and the Rise of the Robots

April 28, 2011

Rachael has seen the future

Anyone who’s watched a few episodes of The Real Housewives can attest: it’s difficult to decipher emotions on a heavily Botoxed face. Now a new study suggests that Botox may also decrease its users’ ability to perceive the emotions of others. But there’s another irony: as we humans, in our anti-aging quest, get closer to smoothing our faces into inscrutable masks, robots are being built with more of these expressions and quirks. And they’re being built this way so that we will like them better.

The Botox study, led by two researchers from The University of Southern California and Duke University, was published last week in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science. Researchers compared people who had a Botox procedure against a control group who had been injected with Restylane, a dermal filler that does not affect muscular feedback, and found that the group with the Botox treatments had more difficulty identifying emotions.

“People who use Botox are less able to read others’ emotions,” said USC psychology professor David Neal. “The disconnect happens because people read others’ emotions partly by mimicking their facial expressions.” This process, known as “mirroring”, was also the subject of a similar study conducted by Columbia University last year.

But someone else is experimenting with concepts of nonverbal communication from a very different angle. Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro has been creating robots for over a decade, for the purpose of understanding human-robot interaction. Rather than build robots that look like robots, this former oil painter has been replicating human appearance as closely as possible – he has even made copies of himself and his then 4-year old daughter!

Ishiguro’s most recent creation is also his most realistic. Built with the help of Kokoro, the robotics division of Sanrio, the Geminoid DK is a replica of Danish college professor Henrik Scharfe. It will reside in Europe, where Western attitudes towards androids can be further studied, along with concepts like “emotional affordances in human-robot interaction” and “blended presence”. Here is a video of his/its facial expressions, which are as un-Botoxed as technology allows:



Cool and creepy, right? It’s also more expression than we see in some of our favorite Housewives – is it possible that we are watching animatronic figures on TV? Probably not – the androids don’t drink, and are far more expensive to build than wannabe stars. But as we get more robotic, and robots get more human, we may get to where we can’t tell the difference.

As for Ishiguro’s robots, they’re doing just fine. His pretty twenty-something Geminoid F just got her first acting job. Reality stars: watch your backs!

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