Being touched by a sexy nurse is one of the most common fantasies (not admitting anything personally here) – but how would you feel if your object of affection was a robot? Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology found that volunteers were happy to be touched by a robot nurse, if under the impression they were cleaning a wound.
If they were told the robot was there to provide comfort, participants were less than positive about the experience. Humans are very strange creatures, we have the habit of anthropomorphising – of seeing a concious will behind the most inanimate of things. An interesting form of this is pareidolia – seeing human faces in non-human objects. For example, burning your toast can result in patterns of carbonised bread that, from a distance, almost resemble a blurry representation of a bearded man. If you squint a bit.
Generally, if we see a humanesque face in something, we empathise with it more. We love our pet dogs and cats because their faces are so expressive – we can almost imagine them as fellow humans.
Robots are a strange exception to this rule. Robots are designed to replicate human activity and to be able to perform tasks that we find drudgerous and wearisome. Many robots are so similar to humans in appearance and behaviour that they could almost pass off as one of us. Geminoid DK is one of the most realistic androids ever created. Watson, from IBM, is so intelligent, it can win gameshows. However, we dont empathise with them. They are too similar; so close to humanity and yet failing completly.
It makes sense, therefore, that people find it disturbing for a robot to caress their arm in an empathetic fashion. Although the physical action may be the same as that of a human, it has come from an imposter – a machine designed to emulate humanity. When the patient was told the robot was only their to clean – it has stopped becoming a fraud – it is now only a machine there to perform a task – something that humans are used to robots doing.