In the future we envision for ourselves, will the emotional aptitude of robots be enough to satisfy our lack of physical human affection?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)

For all the worrying about the effects of technology on our lives there aren't many consumer technologies designed to actually do things to us. Phones, computers, televisions, and wall sockets all make services available to us, but none are designed to directly act on us. The Innorobo gathering in Lyon, France, a conference to show off new applications of robotic technology, offers some evidence of what it might look like were machines built to touch us back in the same way we touch them.

Kibo (pictured above) is a robot designed and manufactured in South Korea that can display 10 distinct emotional states by altering the few expressive features on its face: oversized egg-shaped eyes, heavy black eyebrows, and a bright red mouth. The four foot tall robot can also dance, bring gifts to its owners, and give out hugs to soothe lonely humans with less programmable emotions. Its features may seem like pointless mimicries of human behavior, gestures without the ability to invest meaning in them the way a best friend or lover might. Yet, pointless mimicries are often what drives technology, from the drive to create a computer that can play Jeopardy! to comment-bots that randomly appear in blog posts. It's not pointlessness that disqualifies a technology from wide distribution, but the lack of a clear path for money-making. 


Physical affection has never had an easy transition into a non-human medium, but the desire for discrete, controllable access to it has been constant.


There is a marginal but well-established tradition of various kinds of robotic apparatuses that serve as a pass-through for human intimacy, where the actual object expressing affection is a machine but operating under instruction from another person. Keep in Touch is a fabric touchscreen that allowed distant lovers to maintain a sense of physical intimacy, with the touchscreen showing a blurred image of the partner's body. Touching a specific body part brings that part of the image into focus, and when not touching the image of the lover fades into a blur. It's essentially a video chat that requires users to go through the motions of caressing one another in order to see each other clearly.

There is also inTouch, three cylindrical rollers attached to a basemount with a network connection to another device. When one user moves or rotates the cylinder a signal is sent to the distant second device which moves or rotates their cylinders, transmitting a basic physical sensation from person to person. Another early experimental device called Vibrobod translated the intensity of activity on a certain newsgroup to a physical sensation, as a user scrolled through a list of groups the most active would produce intense vibration and heat signals and less active groups would have faint vibrations and cooler temperatures. Researchers found the connection to physical stimulus was so clear that no training or explanation was needed to acclimate new users to its system.

It's perfectly feasible to imagine smiling, huggable Kibo becoming a pass-through used to send actual touch and gestures from human to computer and back to human again. But there is unavoidable awkwardness in this scenario, the exact nature of what's lost in translating human action into a digital medium that is easier to obscure with the more accepted uses of computer intermediaries, say, conversations exchanged for message board threads and Twitter exchanges. There is a longer history of translating conversations into other media, and so the digital transition is acceptable. Physical affection has never had an easy transition into a non-human medium, but the desire for discrete, controllable access to it has been constant.


If you're uncomfortable being hugged by a robot you can pay a stranger to do it for you. The Snuggery in Rochester, New York offers a kind of surrogate hug therapy where customers (predominantly men) can buy 45-, 60-, or 90- minute sessions of spooning with one of the company's two professional snugglers. As with the discovery that forcing yourself to smile even when you're not happy eventually leads to a slight increase in contentment, services like The Snuggery operate on the presumption that going through the motions of intimacy is, if not ideal, a reasonable way to achieve the same ends.

Unlike smiling, however, touch is especially sensitive to context, a reason why The Snuggery's owners have discovered the few women customers they have often feel uncomfortable cuddling for money and instead wind up preferring to simply talk during sessions. A study from California Institute of Technology last year found that a person's perception of a caress changed dramatically based on the visuals test subjects were shown alongside. The study used all heterosexual men as subjects and showed them photos of either a man or woman while a real woman caressed their leg. Men who were shown a picture of another man while being touched found the experience distressing and uncomfortable, even though the touch itself was being given by a woman.

It's scary to admit that the emotional meaning given to gendered physical relationships can be so easily manipulated. With that realization would have to come a reinterpretation of all of the correlated social structures about courtship, marriage, and the morality of monogamous physical affection. It's not that these things would be impossible to maintain in a culture where touch itself became an ideal good, but their existence would depend on a redefining them in ways that aren't rooted in anatomy, gender signification, and its corollary sexual orientation. Using machines to mediate physical affection would risk dissolving the logic of this entire structure, and throw into question the market logic of all the industries that depend on these socio-sexual mirages, from apparel to fitness. Instead, we seem to be stuck with technologies that entrench our pre-existing valuesViagra, erotic webcam services, OKCupidwhile technologies that challenge them drift away in pointlessness.