Touching a Mechanical Body: Tactile Contact With Body Parts of a Humanoid Robot Is Physiologically Arousing
A large literature describes the use of robots’ physical bodies to support communication with people. Touch is a natural channel for physical interaction, yet it is not understood how principles of interpersonal touch might carry over to a robot. Exploring how interpersonal rules surrounding body accessibility and touch apply to a robot is critical toward understanding the extent to which people treat the act of touching body regions as a sign of closeness—even if the body belongs to a robot—and is important to the field of humanoid social robotics. Thirty-one students participated in an interactive anatomy lesson with a small, humanoid robot. Participants either touched or pointed to an anatomical region of the robot in each of 26 trials while their skin conductance response was measured. Touching less accessible regions of a robot’s body (e.g., its buttocks and genitals) was more physiologically arousing than touching more accessible regions (e.g., its hands and feet). No differences in physiological arousal were found when just pointing to those same anatomical regions. A social robot elicited tactile responses in human physiology, a result that signals people treat touching body parts as an act of closeness in itself that does not require a human recipient. The power of touching a humanoid body with identifiable body parts should caution mechanical and interaction designers about the positive and negative effects of human-robot interaction.
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