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November 9, 2019

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Electronic embrace: Is hugging the best use for robots in a lonely future?

YESTERDAY I decided it was time to scour the halls of the second China International Import Expo for something futuristic, something I’ve never seen before. I found it, but it was more depressing than you might think.

I had heard whispers around the expo site that there was a robot boy, aptly named Roboy, who had become a bit popular among visitors for his hugs. That’s right, he has been set up here solely to show off his hugging abilities.

Roboy came to Shanghai all the way from Germany with a smiling face and welcoming arms, ready to embrace the world. And after my cold and stale hug with him it dawned on me that I may have just embraced an aspect of the future that may become reality for many.

You see, what might seem cute or fun actually turned out a bit more depressing for me, once I thought about it a bit, because robots like Roboy, although they might seem at first to be just a bit of novel fun, will most likely end up a reality in the future. That is, robots specifically designed to cure melancholy and help fill a void for lonely people who are lacking a bit of TLC.

It turns out the company who built Roboy do have other uses in mind — they want to build a robot with a body “as good as humans” that can not only perform any number of menial jobs, but also act as a way for scientists to research the human body without having to cut up real people.

“Our body is a marvel of engineering,” the company’s promotional material claims. “It's fast, agile, dexterous and even self-repairing.”

I can’t agree, at least yet, because the technology clearly has a long way to go. Roboy was slow to react, raising his arms to hug me like the reluctant recipient of unrequited affection. His gaze was cold and indifferent, even through his digital smile. To be completely honest, it was the most awkward hug I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve experienced quite a few awkward hugs in my time!

Once I was done, I was uncere­moniously shoved out of the way by the next eager hugger waiting in line to enjoy that electronic embrace.

People were waiting in line to approach Roboy, gaze into his blue, digital eyes, and wait as his arms slowly wrapped around them. There were young women and grown men, all seemingly unfazed by what I thought was decidedly uncomfortable and unsettling.

One man, probably around 40 years old, seemed to particularly enjoy being in the robot’s arms. “Do you like it,” I asked him in Chinese. I was waiting for him to tell me it was a bit weird, or maybe nothing special.

“It’s really quite comforting,” he said as he closed his eyes.

And that’s when it dawned on me.

Like the movie “Artificial Intelligence,” where a mourning mother buys a boy robot to fill the void after her son is put into a coma, Roboy seems to satisfy some primal desire for love and physical connection, something that most humans need and some sincerely lack.

Will "loving" robots become a real possibility in the decades to come? Robots that not only wait for you while you’re at work, but won’t hesitate to hug you or ask how your day was or, dare I say it, sleep with you at night?

Like all things in the future, the answer is uncertain. But one thing is for sure, I’m not racing to hug a robot any time soon.


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