Researchers at the University of California–San Diego’s Machine Perception Laboratory study nonverbal communication to help them develop robots and computer systems that can interact with people. Their latest experiment seeks to understand the motivation behind babies’ smiles, and it involves a creepy animatronic infant that will probably haunt your dreams.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, consisted of two experiments. In the first, researchers observed 13 mother-baby pairs to see when and how often they smiled at each other. They found that the babies, all 4 months or younger, seemed to time their smiles in order to get one in return — and they did this at the bare minimum. They would start to grin, and as their moms would respond with big smiles, the infants stopped. This surprised the team, who said they thought babies either had no goal, or were into “mutual smiling.” Instead, they seem to want to be smiled at. They can’t prove that babies do this consciously, but it’s definitely not random.
To verify their findings, they programmed a robot named Diego San (heh) to mimic the babies’ timing and tested it with 32 undergraduate students. Sure enough, the robot didn’t have to smile very much in order to get the students to smile, despite being objectively terrifying. The study was funded in part by grants from the National Science Foundation to use robots to better understand human development and support the researchers’ overall goal of creating social robots.
Don’t you want to pinch his cheeks? NO. The answer is no.