Can humans ever feel truly intimate with robots?

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Imagine you’re lying in a hospital bed during the last moment of your life and your friends and family can’t be with you. Would a robot do? Not a fancy, Ferrari style one, but a simple machine that touches you repetitively and comforts you with a robotic voice, saying things like “You’re not alone.”

Like what you see in the video above.

This robot is now only an experiment by designer Dan Chen, who specializes in human machine interaction, although some people emailed him asking if it was for sale. Chen designs commercial products as well as experimental and conceptual robots like the End of Life Care Machine. His robots explore fundamental questions about our relationship with artificial intelligence: Can humans ever feel truly intimate with robots? What’s giving us that sense of intimacy? And is there a limit to such intimacy?

An essential part of Chen’s experiment is to make his robots extremely “appliance-like.” He wants to see if “humanlike-ness” is an indispensable element that creates a sense of intimacy. In one experiment called Cardboard Friend, he stripped out all the robot’s human elements and found that some people still developed a sense of intimacy and attachment to the cardboard robot.

“The essential thing about creating intimacy is human projection. It’s kind of a one-way thing. Even in human relationships as well,” says Chen. “You think someone is giving you a sense of affection, they’re caring about you, therefore they are. That works with anything that you own and any robot I built.”

So why do we even need humanoids? Why not make robots that look just like machines?

“Humanoid robots are better at ‘seducing’ you into feeling intimate. They’ve got a lower entry point. But my work is about not making it easy for you to project intimacy,” answers Chen. It’s important to remind people that machines are still machines, even when they have a brain, he says.

“A lot of my robots have this comfort and discomfort element to them. They lure you in with intimacy and at the same time, help you zoom out to see, what am I doing with this thing and what intimacy really is,” says Chen.

The paradoxical sensation of feeling intimate with AI, yet knowing something is off, summarizes what humans are experiencing as we enter a more digitalized world. ”We are slowly realizing that we’re being controlled by algorithms,” says Chen.  

AI now tells you which person to meet (Tinder) and which stranger’s car to get into (Uber), for example. YouTube can teach you how to tie a tie; you don’t have to ask your father. In the future,  you probably won’t have awkward conversations with chatty cashiers because the stores of the future may not have cashiers.

Chen believes that the paradoxical sensation of feeling intimate yet staying alert of AI, will keep humans from entering a dystopian future without humanity. ”Some people are already doing things like digital detox,” he says.  

He himself has figured out how to keep a machine from replacing a person. His grandmother passed away two years ago, so he built a machine to replicate her touch. “Once I created it, I actually never used it.” says Chen, “Having something that’s accessible on demand robbed the preciousness of that connection I had with my grandma.”