Arthur C. Clarke said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Techno-magician Marco Tempest would agree. In his TED robot demo, he acknowledges that one of the reasons robots make people nervous is that “we cannot read their intentions,” which also makes it difficult for us to work closely with them. Tempest suggests that one way to feel more comfortable with robots is to “add a layer of deception,” or the illusion that a machine is thinking or feeling before we have the actual technology to allow for those processes. Researchers at Japan’s Kansai University are doing just that — they’re building robots that react involuntarily, like humans, namely by sweating and getting goosebumps.
The researchers also acknowledge that one of the biggest challenges in robotics is that we don’t know what they’re “thinking.” Sure, robots can exhibit expressions or mimic behavior, but those are essentially illusions designed to put humans at ease. The goosebumps (pictured above) might be a result of a cold wind or a chill-inducing story. They’ve got a robotic head capable of sweating, which makes me think of one of my favorite scenes in Battlestar Galactica — just before Starbuck begins to interrogate Leoben in the first season episode “Flesh and Bone,” she notices that the Cylon is sweating. It gives her pause, as “Cylons shouldn’t sweat.” It’s a small detail, but it’s a huge invasion of the human realm. The Japanese researchers are intentionally transcending the boundaries between human and machine in small but significant ways.
Another robotic prototype they’ve developed changes the volume of its speech via a built-in fan, allowing for the illusion of breath. These kinds of reactions haven’t really been examined in human/robotic interaction studies, which focus mostly on mimicry and explicitly stated feelings, rather than subtle human cues indicating state of mind or body. Goosebumps and sweating are physical reactions that humans can’t control, and that may even betray what we say we’re thinking or feeling. The researchers think that if humans believe robots have similarly uncontrollable responses, we might trust them more. It’s possible, though I wonder if such responses might trigger uncanny valley revulsion, much as they do with Starbuck.
Boston Dynamic’s PETMAN robot also sweats, trying to mimic the physiology of a soldier and regulate its own temperature. I don’t know that that makes me trust PETMAN, but that’s probably why the Kansai University researchers are using more cuddly robots for their experiments.