By Christy Tidwell
On Valentine’s Day, talk of love and romance is everywhere. Some people celebrate it and some avoid it. Still others would like to celebrate but are separated from their loved ones. Long-distance relationships are hard, after all, so what if technology could help diminish that distance? Sure, we have phone calls, FaceTime, even emails or letters (if you’re particularly old-fashioned). But these methods of connection don’t include touch.
Lovotics, a multidisciplinary research project proposed by Dr. Hooman Samani of the University of Plymouth (UK), proposes to change this. It includes several applications:
- Kissenger, a pair of robots designed to transfer a kiss over distance. Here, “the system takes the form of an artificial mouth that provides the convincing properties of the real kiss.”
- Mini-Surrogate, a project to use miniature robots “as small cute, believable and acceptable surrogates of humans for telecommunication.” They are meant to “foster the illusion of presence.”
- XOXO, a system that builds on Kissenger but also includes a “wearable hug reproducing jacket.”
It sounds like a potentially nice idea to help with long-distance relationships. When I raised this with students in my Humanities & Technology class last semester, however, they found it more disturbing than promising. Check out the video for the Kissenger for more detail.
For me, these ideas come with more questions than answers. How important is physical proximity for a meaningful relationship? What elements of touch are most important? Can those elements be replicated by something other-than-human? Even – what new relationships between human and nonhuman might be possible in the future?
I don’t have answers to these questions; in fact, I don’t think there is one right answer to them. But we should probably be asking them before we start creating technological solutions to problems that we don’t fully understand. Will having kissing robots lead to serious harm? Probably not. Will they help? We won’t know unless we ask questions about human emotions and psychology, bringing humanities and social sciences knowledge to bear on technological possibility.