Comparison of Human Social Brain Activity During Eye-Contact With Another Human and a Humanoid Robot

Front Robot AI. 2021 Jan 29;7:599581. doi: 10.3389/frobt.2020.599581. eCollection 2020.


Robot design to simulate interpersonal social interaction is an active area of research with applications in therapy and companionship. Neural responses to eye-to-eye contact in humans have recently been employed to determine the neural systems that are active during social interactions. Whether eye-contact with a social robot engages the same neural system remains to be seen. Here, we employ a similar approach to compare human-human and human-robot social interactions. We assume that if human-human and human-robot eye-contact elicit similar neural activity in the human, then the perceptual and cognitive processing is also the same for human and robot. That is, the robot is processed similar to the human. However, if neural effects are different, then perceptual and cognitive processing is assumed to be different. In this study neural activity was compared for human-to-human and human-to-robot conditions using near infrared spectroscopy for neural imaging, and a robot (Maki) with eyes that blink and move right and left. Eye-contact was confirmed by eye-tracking for both conditions. Increased neural activity was observed in human social systems including the right temporal parietal junction and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during human-human eye contact but not human-robot eye-contact. This suggests that the type of human-robot eye-contact used here is not sufficient to engage the right temporoparietal junction in the human. This study establishes a foundation for future research into human-robot eye-contact to determine how elements of robot design and behavior impact human social processing within this type of interaction and may offer a method for capturing difficult to quantify components of human-robot interaction, such as social engagement.

Keywords: TPJ; dorsolateral prefontal cortex; eye-contact; fNIRS; human-robot interaction; social cognition; social engagement; tempoparietal junction.