This Robot Just Wants a Hug

first_imgEditor’s note: This article was updated on June 13 with comment from Block.Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey. Evan Rachel Wood Just As Disturbed by Humanoid Sophia As Everyone ElseMIT’s Thread-Like Robot Slides Through Blood Vessels In the Brain I love hugs. Like, really love them. I’d choose a warm embrace over a cream cheese-smeared bagel, an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt binge, or a sale on scented candles.So you can bet I’m excited about the prospect of a humanoid robot programmed to hug people.HuggieBot—a modified Willow Garage PR2 robot—is the first step toward an IRL Baymax: As tall as an average human, it is made with layers of foam, polyester, and other materials for extra-soft comfort.(And, as an added bonus, it won’t deflate when the battery runs low.)“We’re interested in enabling robots to hug because of how common hugs are in daily life and because of their numerous health benefits,” according to lead researcher Alexis Block, a Ph.D. student in the Haptic Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.Studies suggest that hugs—whether between family, friends, or significant others—can ease stress, lower blood pressure, and make us feel supported, all of which helps stave off infection.“When my advisor and I were discussing several potential topics for my masters thesis, we realized both of our families lived far away,” Block told Geek in an email. “We thought about how nice it would be to get a hug from our moms on difficult or stressful days. This idea became HuggieBot.” Earlier this year, Block presented her own findings, based on a study in which HuggieBot gave 30 participants 12 different mechanical hugs.The experiment, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, featured the cyborg raising its arms expectantly and asking, “Can I have a hug, please?”Some folks were wary of embracing the 450-pound computer, while others seemed excited for the novel opportunity.“When HuggieBot asks a person for a hug, some people answer out loud. Others just hold on to the robot for a really long time,” Block explained. “We also found that taking part in our formal user study (in which people hugged the robot 12 times) significantly improved the participants’ general impressions about robots.” No one was crushed to death or ran away screaming, NBC News MACH reported; some participants told researchers that HuggieBot was “nicer to hug” than they anticipated.“The study participants gave us lots of helpful feedback that will enable us to create a robot that gives even better hugs,” according to Block. “We are now in the process of developing HuggieBot 2.0, which will be more ergonomic and responsive to its hugging partner. We plan to compare the psychological and physiological effects of hugging this new robot with the effects of hugging other people. And finally we hope to be able to allow people to send each other customized hugs through HuggieBot 2.0 and see how these remote robot-mediated interactions affect personal relationships.Researchers are working on a second-generation machine—one that measures how much emotional support its hugs provide. HuggieBot 2.0 will be more ergonomic and responsive to its hugging partner.“We plan to compare the psychological and physiological effects of hugging this new robot with the effects of hugging other people,” Block said. “And finally, we hope to be able to allow people to send each other customized hugs through HuggieBot 2.0 and see how these remote robot-mediated interactions affect personal relationships.”She has no intention, though, of replacing human embraces (because who would want to?). She simply wants to supplement them.“We’re advocating for this technology to be used as a complement to other people,” Block explained, as reported by NBC News, “in situations where it is difficult or uncomfortable to get the support a person needs or wants from another human”—like a college campus or senior living facility. Stay on targetlast_img

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