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.
View of a classroom from the back, looking forward to the large blackboard on the front wall over the backs of many stationary wooden chairs placed very close together.

The Politics of Chairs: What Kind of Classroom Would You Build?

design, The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

A chair is just a chair, right? Well, since you’re reading this blog you probably won’t be surprised that my STS answer is not necessarily – there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Dr. Zhu’s campus talk last month began with a fundamental concept in STS that I’d like to revisit: technologies are not neutral. That doesn’t mean, like some of my students first assume, that technology is simply either good or bad, like an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. It means that technologies are expressions of things that we value as humans, such as safety, freedom, connection, privacy, and so on. 

A still from The Simpsons: Homer Simpson (middle-aged male cartoon character) with an angel version of himself on one shoulder and a devil version of himself on the other.
Technological non-neutrality is not this simple.

Let’s go back to chairs and specifically those you would find in an in-person college classroom. If you google images for “college classrooms,” you’ll find many pictures of traditional teacher- and technology-focused designs – the ones that probably pop into your own head when you think about a classroom. 

An image found searching Google for “picture of a college classroom” shows a traditional classroom arrangement.

But have you ever wondered why a classroom is the way it is, or if that’s the way it should be? That’s a question that intrigues scholars of built pedagogy, the study of the physical representation of educational philosophies. A fundamental principle of this field is that technologies are not neutral. A classroom is not just a space to learn, but a place that embodies beliefs, values, biases, and ideologies. It is, dare I say it, political in nature. For instance, the built environment establishes what bodies can move in space and how easily. A classroom that one student might easily navigate may feel drastically different for a student with a disability or injury.