Unless robot parts really do get you going, you may have been surprised by recent headlines about a research study in which human subjects experienced arousal when asked to touch a robot’s genitalia. Provocative stuff, for sure — but don’t believe the sensational headlines. They’re a bit of a stretch, since the study merely showed that the human brain is aroused when asked to touch body parts that we wouldn’t normally touch. But higher electrical activity in the human brain doesn’t necessarily indicate sexual arousal, so calm down everybody.
Here’s how the study went down: Researchers from Stanford University conducted the experiment by fitting each participant’s non-dominant hand with sensors that measured reaction time and skin conductance. Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO robot is humanoid in shape, so it was presented during the study as something of a learning tool. The robot asked participants to point to or touch a part of the body, and then it taught participants the medical term for that body part. Findings from the study showed that participants were physiologically aroused when the robot asked them to touch body parts like the buttocks or the eyes.
That said, it’s highly unlikely that any of the researchers conducting the study would concede that these results are correlated with sexual arousal. A more accurate interpretation would be to say that, when faced with a humanoid robot, humans tend to follow common social conventions having to do with touch. You wouldn’t reach out and touch a stranger’s eyeballs without hesitation, even in a research setting. You probably won’t reach out to touch a stranger’s buttocks either — but since the robot was sitting down during the study, hesitation may have come from trying to touch a hard-to-reach body part, not necessarily a sexual one.
“Our work shows that robots are a new form of media that is particularly powerful,” said Jamy Li, one of the Stanford researchers leading the study. “It shows that people respond to robots in a primitive, social way. Social conventions regarding touching someone else’s private parts apply to a robot’s body parts as well. This research has implications for both robot design and theory of artificial systems.” In the study, physiological arousal indicates a specific emotional engagement that transcends mere sexual attraction. Studying the way humans naturally interact with humanoid robots on a neurological level will be important as robotics continue to develop and join society.
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