Who needs humans? Chimps go ape over sweet-talking robot

A Chimpanzee munches on leek at Tokyo's Tama Zoo in February.
A chimpanzee munches on a leek at Tokyo's Tama Zoo. AFP

We lost the cats to the Roombas, and the dogs to the pointing PeopleBots. Now, it seems that robots are casting a spell on curious chimps, too. 

When 16 chimps from the Yerkes National Primate Center in Georgia encountered Robota, a doll who made pre-recorded chimp sounds from her chest, they tried to befriend her and talk to her, and they even banged on their cages to invite her to play.

"In one case, a chimp laughed at the robot while gesturing 'play,'" Marina Davila-Ross, a psychology lecturer at the University of Portsmouth and part of the team who watched the chimps interact with Robota, wrote in Ars Technica.

Two chimpanzees, Faye and Jarred, offered the robot "toys," she writes. Almost all the chimps tried to communicate with the bot using gestures or facial expressions, Davila-Ross and her co-authors note in a new study in Animal Cognition

Quite the charmer: Robota doll befriended chimps at the Yerkes National Primate Center.
Quite the charmer: Robota the doll befriended chimps at the Yerkes National Primate Center.

The chimps were particularly interested when the bot — to the extent that it could — mimicked apelike movements. They were less interested when her movements seemed more human. 

For anyone who's surprised that our primate relatives seem smitten with a robotic playmate, remember that we form bonds with robots, too. Studies have shown that robotic pets were sometimes more successful than live ones at engaging elderly adults

When it comes to robotic companions, chimps and humans seem to agree on one thing: So what if they're not real? 

 viIEEESpectrum and Ars Technica

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+