Attribution of Autonomy and its Role in Robotic Language Acquisition

Frank Foerster, Kaspar Althoefer

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The false attribution of autonomy and related concepts to artificial agents that lack the attributed levels of the respective characteristic is problematic in many ways. In this article we contrast this view with a positive viewpoint that emphasizes the potential role of such false attributions in the context of robotic language acquisition. By adding emotional displays and congruent body behaviors to a child-like humanoid robot’s behavioral repertoire we were able to bring naïve human tutors to engage in so called intent interpretations. In developmental psychology, intent interpretations can be hypothesized to play a central role in the acquisition of emotion, volition, and similar autonomy-related words. The aforementioned experiments originally targeted the acquisition of linguistic negation. However, participants produced other affect- and motivation-related words with high frequencies too and, as a consequence, these entered the robot’s active vocabulary. We will analyze participants’ non-negative emotional and volitional speech and contrast it with participants’ speech in a non-affective baseline scenario. Implications of these findings for robotic language acquisition in particular and artificial intelligence and robotics more generally will also be discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalAI and Society
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jan 2021


  • Human-Robot Interaction
  • language acquisition
  • attribution of autonomy
  • attribution of agency


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