Most people would appreciate a chatbot that offers sympathetic or empathetic responses, according to a team of researchers, but they added that reaction may rely on how comfortable the person is with the idea of a feeling machine.

In a study, the researchers reported that preferred receiving sympathetic and empathetic responses from a chatbot—a machine programmed to simulate a conversation—than receiving a response from a machine without emotions, said S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory. People express when they feel compassion for a person, whereas they express empathy when they are actually feeling the same emotions of the other person, said Sundar.

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However, chatbots may become too personal for some people, said Bingjie Liu, a doctoral candidate in mass communications, who worked with Sundar on the study. She said that study participants who were leery of conscious machines indicated they were impressed by the chatbots that were programmed to deliver statements of sympathy and empathy.

“The majority of people in our sample did not really believe in machine emotion, so, in our interpretation, they took those expressions of empathy and sympathy as courtesies,” said Liu. “When we looked at people who have different beliefs, however, we found that people who think it’s possible that machines could have emotions had negative reactions to these expressions of sympathy and empathy from the chatbots.”

Source: Empathetic machines favored by skeptics but might creep out believers