Ever watch your Roomba robot vacuum cleaner make the rounds in the living room while you watch Netflix and eat chocolate and feel a little sorry that it has to clean up after you and your three cats? No?

But if you did feel badly it wouldn’t be that strange, researchers in Germany say, after they determined humans can feel empathy for robots in the same way they might for their fellow homo sapiens.

Scientists at the University of Duisburg Essen say participants in two studies registered similar emotional reactions when they witnessed humans and robots being treated poorly.

The researchers will present their findings at the annual International Communication Association conference in London in June.

In their first study, the researchers showed 40 participants videos in which a small robot dinosaur was treated affectionately, with hugs and tickles, or was subjected to abuse, such as hitting or being dropped.

When asked how they felt after watching the videos, the participants said they had more negative feelings after watching the video of the robot being abused. They also exhibited a stronger physiological response in the form of heightened electrical conductance of the skin. This occurs with an increase in sweating, which can result from emotional responses such as fear, anger or agitation.

In their second study, the researchers used functional magnetic-resonance imaging, or fMRI, to record brain activity in the participants as they watched human-to-human and human-to-robot interaction.

Fourteen participants watched videos showing either affectionate or violent interaction between a human, a robot and an inanimate object. Watching affectionate behaviour towards both the robot and the human provoked the same brain activity in the participants. However, in this study, participants exhibited stronger reactions to images of the human being abused, which suggests that they still felt more empathy for the human than the robot.

According to the researchers, humans generally find it strange to talk about how they feel about interactions between humans and robots, so they worked around that by measuring the physiological responses and brain activity in participants to get a sense of their emotional states.

Lead study author Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten said in a statement that the findings have implications for the current focus of robotics research, which is to develop robotic companions for humans that can be “useful or beneficial tools,” such as those that can help the elderly complete daily tasks.

For example, in Japan, researchers have developed Paro, a robotic seal designed to offer the benefits of animal therapy without the logistical concerns of having a live animal at home or in a long-term care facility.

"A common problem is that a new technology is exciting at the beginning, but this effect wears off especially when it comes to tasks like boring and repetitive exercise in rehabilitation,” said Rosenthal-von der Pütten.

“The development and implementation of uniquely humanlike abilities in robots like theory of mind, emotion and empathy is considered to have the potential to solve this dilemma."