People can get excited and feel awkward when touching robots, study finds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 1:15pm

Touching a robot in areas that would be considered "intimate" if they were on a person, has the power to arouse humans, a new study suggests.

Researchers from Stanford University recently conducted an experiment that looked at how humans would respond when asked by a machine to touch parts of its robotic body; from the more accessible regions like hands, to the more "intimate", like eyes or buttocks.

During the experiment, researchers used an Aldebaran Robotics humanoid NAO robot, which had been programmed to ask participants to touch 13 different parts of its body.

During the trial, test subjects, were wired up to a skin conductance sensor to measure their reaction time as well as their physical responses, while sitting next to the robot and following its instructions.

The study found that when the NAO robot told test subjects to touch its "intimate" body parts, participants were "more emotionally aroused" but also "more hesitant"—suggesting potential discomfort—compared to touching less intimate regions, which saw subjects deliver a more natural, and typically quicker response. When asked to only point at the body parts, no differences in physiological arousal were found.

In the experiment, there were 26 trials, with each trial containing three sections: first, robot asks the volunteer to touch (or point at) it; second, volunteer touches (or points at) robot's body part; and finally, robot teaches volunteers the medical name for each body part.

The study's paper entitled "Touching a Mechanical Body: Tactile Contact With Intimate Parts of a Human-Shaped Robot is Physiologically Arousing", was written by Stanford University researchers, Wendy Ju, Jamy Li and Byron Reeves.

While "physiologically arousing" does address sexual stimulation, the definition also refers to an individual's attention, awareness and alertness levels.

"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 Li.

"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."

Several studies have looked into different aspects of robots and lifestyles such as how machines may replace people in certain job fields, while other research shows how robots could affect people's health and well-being.

Of course society isn't immune from examining the more intimate side to robots. During a panel at 2015's Web Summit technology conference, experts weighed in on whether people should have sex with robots , while last week, news broke that a graphic designer had created a US$50,000 life-size robot, which had a similar physical appearance to actress Scarlett Johansson.

The scientists will present their findings at the International Communication Association's annual conference in Japan, this June.