Researchers from Stanford University have found that humans can get aroused when they touch robots in intimate places.
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Previous research has focused on human-robot interactions like talking or being touched by a robot. Now Jamy Li, a PhD student in Stanford’s Department of Communication, has studied what happens when humans are the ones doing the touching.
Li programmed a small humanoid robot and recruited a number of students who were made to touch the robot body as part of a supposed anatomy lesson. The robot asked the participants to point at and touch different areas of its body.
The humans were wired up to a sensor that measured the electrical conductance of the skin in order to monitor the electrodermal activity (EDR). When we get turned on, this conductance increases.
Robot research presented in Japan
Researchers observed that the physiological arousal of humans increased as they touched the robot rather than pointing at it. Arousal increased as the areas of the body they touched became more intimate.
However this does not mean that the participants were thinking about the robot in a sexual way, it just means that they were more alert when they did so. Interestingly participants were more hesitant to touch these intimate zones.
“There was a tendency to treat the robot like it had social rules that applied to it,” said Li, who presented his research this week at the 66th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in Fukuoka, Japan. “Perhaps people feel like robots with human-like bodies are more like a person.”
Future robots could be influenced by research
Li believes that humans may feel an urge to adhere to social norms when interacting with another physical being directly. The study could provide evidence that people transfer their comfort levels in performing certain activities from humans to robots.
The research could be used to help designers make robots that make us feel more comfortable. If we always transfer social norms from human interactions to robot interactions, it could influence the way we use them.
The study only had 10 participants so we cannot draw any major conclusions from it, but it could help researchers develop future robots. Li says that personally he doesn’t feel any different about touching the robot after months of working with it.
With the advance of robot technology a number of moral debates have arisen. One such debate is the potential consequences of using robots for sex, not just morally but emotionally and biologically.
Li is diplomatic when it comes to robot sex, but he does say that his research should help people think about the connection between humans and robots. “It’s a powerful way to interact,” he said. “It makes us want to proceed with cautious optimism.”
Just last week a Hong Kong man revealed an eerily lifelike robot that he had made to look like Scarlett Johansson. A 42-year-old designer named Ricky Ma spent around $50,000 and a year of work developing the “Mark 1” humanoid robot.
It is not clear whether the electrical conductance of Ma’s skin increases when he is around the robot.