Humans become aroused when touching robots in 'sensitive' places, Stanford University study finds

The research could have huge consequences for the creation of robots that fill the role of human beings 

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 05 April 2016 09:53
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Touching robots can arouse humans, study finds

Humans become aroused when touching robots in sensitive places, a new study has found.

Far from seeing robots as just computers, humans can become physiologically aroused from touching a human-shaped robot in private places like their eyes and buttocks, the Stanford study found.

The results could have huge consequences for the creation of robots in the future, such as ones that people live or even have sex with. It might also help people create “robot stand-ins”, that allow people to touch others when actually being there isn’t an option, the researchers said.

The study had humans take part in an anatomy lesson where they were asked to touch or point at parts of the robot’s body, by the robot itself – which looked like a child or a toy. As they did so, scientists measured the humans’ bodily response, and found that measures of physiological arousal appeared to increase when they were touching “private” parts of the body.

If people thought that robots were simply devices that could be touched there shouldn’t be any difference between the body’s responses when touching its buttocks rather than its hand, the author wrote. But the new study appears to show that people perceive robots similar to the way they do humans, through a “social lens” – which might have huge effects for the way they are designed and how we come to live with them.

"Our work shows that robots are a new form of media that is particularly powerful. It shows that people respond to robots in a primitive, social way," said Jamy Li, one of three authors of the paper. "Social conventions regarding touching someone else's private parts apply to a robot's body parts as well. This research has implications for both robot design and theory of artificial systems."

The study makes clear that none of the people involved in the study thought that the robot was like a human, or that it would actually feel anything when it was touched in sensitive areas. But the fact that the robot had a human shape meant that people responded to it in much the same way.

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“People feel more alert, aware or attentive (this was what we measured as physiological arousal) because they may feel that the experience is awkward or uncanny when touching 'private' rather than 'public' areas of the robot,” Mr Li told The Independent. “Even though they know it's a robot and not a person, the robot is giving the person a lot of social cues (speech, gesture, it also had a general human-like form) that in turn elicits a social response.”

The development of robots that are meant to be touched by humans has already surged over the last decade, since touch is thought to be a central part of relationships between people. Studies have looked at the way that robot pets can be used to comfort elderly people, or how such technology might be used during medical procedures or even for simulating intimate relationships.

The consequences of the work for robots created specifically for sexual purposes was an “important question”, Mr Li told The Independent, but that further work would be needed to understand exactly what it might say about that use for robots. While he said that the study had found “some physiological responses around the conventions of touching people apply to robots” – a finding that could have knock-on effects for the creators of sexual robots – he said that “a lot of specific circumstances and connotations with that subset of robot use”.

The researchers didn’t study whether the effect would happen the other way, when robots were touching humans. But being touched by a robot in sensitive places would probably lead to people experiencing physiological arousal, Mr Li said.

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