Creepy Robot Baby Helps Researchers Discover Sweet Thing About Not-Creepy Human Babies

Cheer up, moms — your babies just want to make you smile.

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Nightmares are made of this. And yet, the creepy robot baby built and programmed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, may reveal something interesting about humans: Every baby is born with a perfect sense of comedic timing.

OK, not quite. But the small September 2015 study published in PLOS ONE does suggest that there's a lot more going on behind the scenes when a baby smiles. It turns out they may be smiling in an attempt to get you to smile, which should make sense to anyone who's ever seen a cute baby GIF. Case in point:

funny wiggling babies
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"If you've ever interacted with babies, you suspect that they're up to something when they're smiling. They're not just smiling randomly," said Javier Movellan, study co-author and research scientist in the Machine Perception Laboratory at UC San Diego, in a press release. "But proving this is difficult."

For the first part of the study, researchers observed how 13 babies and their mothers smiled at each other based on one of four goals: both people smiling, mom smiling, baby smiling or nobody smiling. While the mothers' most common goal was for both people to be smiling, the babies' goal was solely to make their moms smile. The babies were actually "efficient" smilers, too, because they only smiled as much as they needed to get their moms to smile. No more, no less.

Based on those observations, the researchers then programmed the aforementioned creepy robot baby — named Diego-San — to mimic the babies' behavior during three-minute interactions with 32 UC San Diego undergraduates. The researchers noticed that the undergrads responded to the robot just like the mothers did in the first part of the study: Even the smallest smile from Diego-San would make the undergrads beam back.

This supports the idea that, just like a comedian with a punchline, a baby times its smile in order to get the biggest smile possible from mom. What isn't clear, however, is whether the babies are conscious of the behavior.

But to be honest, we're still stuck on the part about the undergrads — how were they able to even look at Diego-San for three minutes, much less smile? *Shudders*

Follow Sarah McNaughton on Twitter.

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