Affective Responses to Embodied Intelligence. The Test-Cases of Spot, Kaspar, and Zeno


  • Alessandra Fussi University of Pisa



Therapeutic robots, service robots, uncanny valley, emotion recognition


The traditional distinction between social robots and service robots is gradually being eroded in the design, planning and public presentation of physically embodied artificial intelligence. The paper is mainly concerned with two case studies: a service robot named Spot, from Boston Dynamics, and two social robots named Kaspar and Zeno, advertised as useful therapeutic tools for children in the autistic spectrum. The discussion centers on three key factors that play a role in the affective responses robots may elicit in the public: 1) the “uncanny valley effect,” i.e., the cognitive and affective dissonance that may be provoked by machines that are very close to reaching lifelike appearance, but fail to replicate it with respect to behavior, fine motor skills or perceptual cues. 2) the capacity to evoke affective responses thanks to the symbolic connotations that may be associated with the robot’s appearance. 3) The relevance of situational and contextual factors.

The paper reaches three conclusions: 1) producers sometimes fail to consider carefully the symbolic connotations that may be associated with the design chosen for their robots. 2) The context in which robots are meant to be used ought to play a more significant role in a fair-handed and pluralistic approach to robot production. 3) it is to be hoped that producers, in collaboration with psychologists and philosophers of emotion, extend their understanding of affectivity beyond the theories of basic emotions upon which they mostly rely. It is important and urgent to reflect on the relevance of social context with respect both to emotion recognition and to the affective response of the public.