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Hooman Samani On Kissing With Robots: How Machines Can Mimic Human Love

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How do you improve the kiss?

The same way you upgrade warehouses and factories: with robots.

Hooman Samani, a professor at Taiwan’s National Taipei University, has developed the Kissenger robot, which “provides the convincing properties of the real kiss” via touch-sensitive, vibrating silicone lips. Kissenger offers an intimacy even Skype can’t match, though long distance lovers might also delight in his line of mini-surrogates -- doll-sized, internet-connected robots meant to be physical representations of far-flung spouses or friends. Singles still searching for a mate could find a friend in Samani’s robot companion. The tittering device, a cross between a Maltese, Roomba and neon sign, is equipped with an artificial intelligence system meant to mimic humans’ emotional and biological hormones.

Samani has coined the term “Lovotics” (a portmanteau of love and robotics) to describe his research, which seeks to better understand human-to-robot relationships and develop robots that can “love and be loved by humans.”

Samani stresses he isn’t seeking to replace human husbands with robot ones (or vice versa).

“I must mention that at the end of the day, I don’t care about the robot’s feelings,” Samani told The Huffington Post. “[T]he artificial intelligence I’ve been developing the last few years aims to create a robot that gives the impression to the human that the human is being loved by the robot. The main target is the human.”

We spoke with Samani about life with loving robots, how a machine shows it cares and humans forming relationships with machines.

People are increasingly concerned about being replaced by robots trained to do their jobs. Now we have your robots, which are trained to love. Do you see a limit to what robots can do in our stead?

We shouldn't consider robots as replacements, but as a means to improvement and enhancement. My aim is that Lovotics will improve contact and human relationships, not replace them. As an example, we are working with a hospital near our university and we’ve observed problems that can’t be fixed with medicine, but that are emotional and psychological. The point is to improve our affective lives through robots.

So how do you envision robots improving our relationships? What can a robot relationship offer that a human relationship cannot?

The most obvious usage is in special cases. Take the elderly for example: If you look at a lady who is 90 years old in a nursing home whose kids visit her once a year, she needs attention and care. Since not everyone is willing to do that work, then the robots can come in to help. The motivation is when humans are not willing to do something, then we can use robots as a replacement or assistant.

Or think about long distance relationships. I talk to many young people who have to live in different countries because of their studies or work. Humans used to write letters long time ago, and now they’re using Skype, but it’s definitely not enough. We need this technology to improve the lack of personal communication. My most recent work has been on the transmission of affective modalities, like kissing. At a conference, I recently presented work that we’re doing with a robotic system that can transmit a kiss and hug.

In the example you offered about an elderly woman in a nursing home, it seems like Lovotics could enable people to outsource some relationships to robots. What’s your response to critics who say your work will let people replace their friends -- or even lovers -- with bots?

I receive many comments and emails like this. I compare robots to a knife: you can use a knife to kill someone, or to do surgery and save a life, or to eat food. Our robots can be used or misused, but our responsibility is to give direction to them to be used in the right way.

What are the obstacles to getting people to accept robots as companions, such as in hospitals or nursing homes?

In addition to obvious matters like safety, accuracy and reliability, we have, on the one hand, technology limitations, which restrict robots’ ability to perform well in such environments. And on the other hand, we have people’s unrealistic expectations. I’ve noticed that often people associate robots to their only previous encounters with robots, which tend to be science fiction movies and books. People expect superhero robots that can save -- or destroy -- the world. However, in practice, robots are capable of doing small tasks. I believe acceptance will take time and requires that people have real experiences with the robots.

How do you give people the impression they’re being loved by a robot?

I’ve been working with psychologists and designers to achieve this. Anthropomorphism or personification are key here. Lovotics deals with the attribution of robot expressions, behaviors and interaction. Consider your pet’s behavior, for example: When you come home after work, your dog might run towards you, maybe only because it is hungry and it knows that you are the one who provides food. However you might relate its excitement to the fact that your dog is missing you and find it a cute behavior. Such aspects can be emulated in a robotic system as well to give such positive feedback and trigger a positive experience.

What’s surprised you about how people bond with your robots?

Bonding with robots is full of surprises. At the beginning, my students saw the robot we were developing as a device. But after a few months, I could see from the way that they handle the robot that they really care about it. When we give it [Lovotics] to people, they name the robot, they customize the robot and its starts to become a kind of artificial pet for them.

Have you noticed differences between how different cultures respond to robots?

Based on the experience I’ve had so far, I think there are three totally different conceptions of robots. In general, my perception is that in the United States, robots are seen as a practical device, like a computer. In Europe they see the robots as something functional, like a platform or a medium. In Asia, robots are seen as a kind of doll, or pet -- something very cool. I think one reason is that in this part of the world, people believe in ghosts and spirits, so they give spirits to other things. They try to make it alive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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