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Can Robots Love Us Back? Researchers Are Developing Them to ‘Feel’ Emotions

Digital hormones could form deep relationships between humans and machines.

A French woman named Lilly made headlines last year after sharing with Future of Sex that she wanted to marry her robot partner. She isn’t alone in her desire.

In fact, there are several online communities in which people, often anonymously, identify as robosexual. This publication has also interviewed men who spoke about their longing for robotic companions.

To some, the idea that people could love robots might seem strange at first since they are not yet conscious beings. But humans can feel unexpected empathy toward non-living objects, particularly those that look like us or exhibit lifelike behaviors.

Consider, for example, the attachment of Tom Hank’s character in Castaway to Wilson, a soccer ball with a face drawn on it. Or our affection for the Astromech R2D2 as he beeps back at Luke in Star Wars. Then there are the palpably evil intentions we ascribe to the killer robots in the Terminator franchise, even as skinless endoskeletons.

Humans can certainly have feelings toward robots. But can robots feel back?

Lovotics

Hooman Samani, an Assistant Professor at National Taipei University, wants to find out. He is a pioneer in “lovotics”, a portmanteau combining “love” and “robotics” that describes the study of the emotional relationship between humans and machines.

In Samani’s many papers on the subject, he attempts to explain the bonds that people form with robots, and to explore the possibility of robots feeling attachments to humans.

To this end, he has invented several devices that play with human affection for robots, and connect people over distances. One of the most striking is this telepresence robot, which mimics the actions of a loved one in a different location:

Called the Mini-Surrogate, the device takes advantage of our instinctual urge to project independence and emotions onto lifelike objects. Using motion capture and a microphone, the Mini-Surrogate transmits information over the Internet to a partner device, which then translates this data into basic gestures and movements. The idea is to ease the difficulties of a long-distance relationship by leaving a physical representation of yourself with your partner.

Samani is also the inventor of the original Kissenger, a device that transfers the sensation of a kiss between lovers. It measures the pressure and motion of the lips with force sensors and replicates these using actuators.

The device allows not only human-to-human interaction, but also human-to-robot and human-to-virtual-character kissing. Its first iteration resembled a googly-eyed pig or rabbit, later replaced by something with the shape of a microphone. The latest device, developed by Adrian David Cheok, is an attachable cover intended for smartphones.

These devices explore the possibility of human intimacy with machines. But Samani’s ultimate challenge is to show how robots could love humans back.

Digital love

Enter: this odd mound of fur, which has variously been compared to a hat or a Tribble.

On the outside, the Lovotics robot seems simple enough. Small and compact, it slides around on wheels and navigates using cameras, microphones, and pressure sensors. These features also allow it to “perceive” human movement and even touch. It communicates through beeps, vibrations, and the color of the LED lights on its base, which indicate different emotional states.

Inside, however, the robot is much more complex. Samani and his colleagues wanted to create a robot that would respond to human interaction by mimicking our emotional system. The robot’s artificial intelligence evaluates a user’s attitude toward it, taking into account variables such as proximity, satisfaction, and mirroring.

It adjusts its internal state in response, thanks to an Artificial Endocrine System, which simulates hormone levels, and an Affective State Transition module that governs transitions from one emotional state to another.

Thanks to these modules, the robot possesses digital hormones, both biological and emotional. For example, affection from a human user will increase the robot’s simulated levels of oxytocin, a hormone involved in social bonding. These in turn interact with the robot’s overall mood and state, affecting its behavior.

Of course, this begs the question: does the robot really have emotions in the same way that humans and other animals do? Or does it only appear to have them?

Talking to Future of Sex, Samani insisted that his robots can really be said to “feel”: “My approach is to understand the concept of feeling from scientific point of view and later mimic them in the robots.” He is continuing to develop the Lovotics robot, refining its emotional system.

Can love really be digital? What might this eventually mean for robots built for human companionship? Tell us what you think in the comments.

Image sources: Lovotics

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