Kissing Robots: Can Technology Help Us Love?

design, Technology

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.

Video demonstrating the Kissenger application.

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.

Kissenger application. Photo credit: Ars Electronica.

STS Faculty Profile: Kayla Pritchard

STS Faculty Profile

Kayla Pritchard is Associate Professor of Sociology. You can read more from her in last semester’s post: “‘The Oldest Profession’: Sex Work Through the Lenses of History, Feminism, and Sociology.”

What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?

I am a sociologist, which means I focus on the context around individuals to understand why they do what they do. This means examining the historical, cultural, and social context that influences our identities, behaviors, opportunities, interactions, and experiences. Within sociology, my expertise centers around 1) family and 2) sex, gender, and sexuality. Both of these exist at the structural level (macro guiding beliefs, ideologies, and assumptions) and at the individual level through identities, experiences, and behaviors. I find the intersection of the structural and the individual fascinating, and it allows me to study and bring in historical processes to better understand society today.

Roger Boisjoly and the Challenger Disaster

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

I recently gave a Brown Bag talk on the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the events surrounding it, and its use as a case study for engineering education and communication. There was so much to cover that I couldn’t go into much detail on one of the most remembered and revered figures of the case study: engineer-turned-whistleblower Roger Boisjoly. To fill in those gaps, I’m dedicating this blog to Boisjoly.

About 73 seconds after the space shuttle Challenger launched on January 28, 1986, it exploded, killing all seven astronauts inside while viewers across the country–including school age children watching in their classrooms–witnessed the disaster on live TV. 

Where Science Happens: Dr. Kathleen Shepherd on Science & Sociability in Egyptology

Guest Speakers

By Olivia Burgess

When you think about the development of science, you might envision a laboratory, but you probably don’t think of a bar, a hotel lobby, or a boat. However, our recent guest speaker, Dr. Kathleen Sheppard, argues that the informal spaces where scientists meet to discuss their work, network, and simply relax are just as important if not more important than formal sites like labs, museums, and universities. 

Dr. Sheppard is an Egyptologist and historian of science who specializes in late 19th-century and early 20th-century British and American Egyptology. During her visit from Nov 15th-16th, 2021, she met with the students in STS 201: Introduction to Science, Society, & Society, gave a Brown Bag presentation, and topped off her visit with a STEAM Café talk.  

STS Faculty Profile: Frank Van Nuys

STS Faculty Profile

Frank Van Nuys is Professor of History and will be the interim Department Head for Humanities & Social Sciences in Spring 2022.

What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?

I would say that I am a generalist in the history of the American West and not particularly comfortable claiming expertise in any area within that field. I am more confident saying that I am conversant in a variety of areas, including the West, of course, but also environmental history. The nature of my job here at Mines accommodates being both a generalist and having some latitude to develop and teach courses that interest me. Of late, in addition to the surveys in American history and Western Civilization, I have been teaching Westward Expansion of the U.S. and Environmental History of the U.S.

My focus earlier in my academic career was on race and immigration, so, for instance, I did my Master’s thesis on so-called alien land laws in California, which were designed to prevent Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing agricultural land in the early 20th century. My first book, Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930, looked at the Western part of the nation as an important driver in immigration restriction and the Americanization programs of the 1910s and 1920s.

After that, my fascination with wildlife issues and the attraction of a deeper engagement with environmental history shifted my focus. Controversies over mountain lions re-populating the Black Hills about fifteen years ago provided the impetus for my second book, Varmints and Victims: Predator Control in the American West, which was published in 2015.

Native Science: Interconnection, Local Knowledge, & Memory

Native American, science

By Christy Tidwell

November is National Native American Heritage Month, a chance to acknowledge the history and living culture of Native American peoples. As a science, technology, and society program, this seems a good opportunity to discuss Native science, also called Indigenous science or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). As the varied names for this indicate, it’s not one monolithic entity but incorporates ideas from many perspectives. It is both traditional, building on Native peoples’ long histories of learning about and sharing knowledge, and contemporary, an ongoing part of living in and with the world.

What is Native Science?

Gregory Cajete (Santa Clara Pueblo) coined the term, and he describes Native science as “a metaphor for a wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting, and coming to know that have evolved through human experiences with the natural world.” Cajete says, “Native science is born of a lived and storied participation with the natural landscape. It is the collective heritage of human experience with the natural world” (2). In other words, Native science combines human and nonhuman and describes what humans know by relating to, communicating with, and experiencing the world. It is not a science based on laboratory experiments or anonymous review.

This contrasts with Western ideas of science by emphasizing connection rather than separation, relationships rather than objective distance. Native science sees people as part of the world they’re learning about, not outside it, and therefore people cannot be removed from scientific work. If you’ve been trained to think of science as necessarily objective and tainted by any hint of subjectivity or bias, this may sound unscientific. However, as Leila McNeill points out in a Lady Science interview, “It really just means that it’s grounded in this specific experience of this specific group of people in this specific place, which can actually give us better results than if we were looking at something that is looking at large, broad questions that they’re trying to apply to everything that just kind of obscures the particular.”

Agrarian Protest: Spring 2022 Course

Classes

by Bryce Tellmann

“Agrarian” is a loaded term. Literature scholar M. Thomas Inge notes that it is most commonly associated with independence and self-sufficiency, as well as long-running tensions between tradition and industry, community, and agriculture as a “positive spiritual good” (xiv). Americans are likely to associate it with Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted line from Notes on the State of Virginia: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”

But the history of agrarianism isn’t all community and virtue. From the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s to the Tractorcades of the 1970s, farmers in the United States have drawn on agrarian rhetoric to protest commodity prices, foreclosures, corporate control, and more. This line of protest is seen around the world as well, from multiple movements for migrant worker rights to the ongoing farmer protests in India.

Black and white cartoon drawing of a man labeled farmer punching a man labeled politician while saying, "I'm a pacifist am I?"
Image courtesy of the North Dakota Historical Society

In Spring 2022, I am teaching a topics class on Agrarian Protest (ENGL 392) that will examine a broad swath of these protests. Since I’m a rhetorician, we’ll pay particular attention to the communicative and persuasive discourse of these movements, through examination of both primary and secondary sources. Ultimately, I expect that students will be surprised by the sheer diversity of voices in the last century-and-a-half of agrarian protest. It is easy to assume that farmers’ political interests are simple, unified, and consistent across time. The truth is far more complex and – dare I say – radical.

So in the (apocryphal) words of 1880s reformer Mary Elizabeth Lease, “it’s time to raise less corn, and more hell!”

Poster advertising the course. 

ENGL 392: Agrarian Protest, Spring 2022, Tuesday/Thursday 12:30-1:45.

Features the text: Time to raise less corn and more hell.

Environmental Literature & Culture: Spring 2022 Course

Classes

By Christy Tidwell

What is nature? What do you imagine when you think of nature? What are the qualities of nature (better yet, of Nature with a capital N)? 

Pause now and think about that for a minute. 

Seriously. 

What is the image of Nature you hold in your mind? Picture it.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Did you imagine something like that? Maybe not that exact image, but something similar? If so, consider this response more fully. What are the qualities of this representation of nature? It’s beautiful. It has lots of elements of the natural world (I know, that seems circular, but stick with me), like trees, mountains, a lake. It’s pure and untouched. It’s wild. Notably, there are no humans in this image. 

#150mmchallenge: Art & Steel

Apex Gallery, Events

How many unique creations can be made from one small piece of steel? The #150mmchallenge asks this question and answers it with a traveling exhibition of 150 metal objects, selected from over 400 pieces created by amateur and professional blacksmiths from around the world. This exhibition is on display at the Apex Gallery now.

Artwork by Anton Yakushev (Russia). Photo credit Oliver Cameron Swann.

The #150mmchallenge began in Hereford, UK, the home of the country’s only Artist Blacksmithing degree course at the Hereford College of Arts. There, tutor Ambrose Burne gave his students three weeks to create something interesting from a small piece of rectangular steel (150mm x 20 mm x 20 mm) without adding anything else. They posted their work to the course Instagram account (@herefordanvils) with the hashtag #150mmchallenge. This challenge caught other blacksmiths’ attention and led to an exhibition that toured Europe and that is now touring the US.

Welcome to the SuperHuman Sports League

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

What if athletes could voluntarily replace their limbs with prosthetics to make them faster and stronger?

This question was raised by Otutoa Afu, an STS major in my Intro to STS course. The class has been discussing what it means to be human in a world where technology can radically transform both the human body and the human experience. Some of these advancements have been tremendously positive, such as the blade runner prosthetic that allows amputees to compete in athletic events, but Otutoa’s question highlights the potential complexities that may arise if technological enhancements become more widespread.