Navigating the Uncanny Valley: Human-computer interaction and social presence in SexTech
Science fiction and popular culture would have us believe that robots will soon be indistinguishable from humans and be able to function precisely as a person would. These robots would look, walk, and talk just like a human, and could carry a conversation as normally and effortlessly as we could with a friend. While this is both fascinating and concerning, it is safe to say that this level of human-computer interaction (HCI) is a long way off. HCI is a multi-disciplinary study field that investigates the relationship between – you guessed it – humans and computers. Without a solid understanding of this interaction, it is unlikely that computers would develop in a way where humans enjoy using them. In robotics, HCI looks at how humans and robots interact with each other.
Social presence is a lesser-known, but equally important concept in robotics. It is a critical goal of HCI and refers to a person feeling as if they are communicating and spending time with a fellow person, while they are actually spending time with a robot. This could mean whether or not they feel emotionally supported by the robot, or how expressive the robot is during their interaction. And while it is hugely important to human acceptance of robots, it is incredibly difficult to achieve.
The theory of the uncanny valley is one way to explain robotic researchers’ struggle to achieve social presence. Japanese roboticist Masahito Mori introduced the theory in 1970 and it is the idea that people feel a greater affinity towards robots as they become more human-like: but up to a point. There is a dip in the positive attitude, where empathy shifts to disgust and the robot are almost human-like but not quite enough to be convincing. This is the uncanny valley, and robots will need to navigate this phenomenon if they are to be successful and accepted by people. If robots are unable to resemble humans without evoking feelings of revulsion – whether this is through how they look, or how they talk – they are likely to appear eerie perhaps in the same way a corpse does.
Sex technology – particularly in the area of sex robotics – will need to address the uncanny valley theory. On one hand, sex toys resembling parts of human bodies have been around for many years, such as a dildo or vibrator that replicates a penis. These items have generally not been subject to the uncanny valley theory. But on the other hand, sex toys that resemble human beings in their entirety will have no choice but to navigate these feelings of unease. As Mori hypothesised, robots can only become human-like to a certain extent before they start freaking people out.
This has huge importance in sex technology. Sex robots are more complex than traditional conceptions of robots because they have a sexual purpose: sex is an emotional and deeply human experience. Creating a functional sex robot will involve more than just robotics, but will require careful navigation of human emotions and attitudes towards an incredibly intimate technology.
The Foundation for Responsible Robotics emphasises that despite growing interest in the area, sex robots are new, and uncommon in day-to-day life for the vast majority of people. Science fiction-style sex robots are many years away, despite recent technological advancements as seen in sex robots such as Kokeshi and Harmony. These innovations are not only designed to be physically attractive, but AI and machine learning have given them the capacity to talk, show facial expressions, and listen to those interacting with them. To counteract the uncanny valley, the sex technology industry must delve deep into human-computer interaction challenges, such as ensuring natural and mutually aligned speech, body movements, and facial expressions; having excellent natural language processing software; and achieving high levels of social presence.
While the future of sex robots is highly controversial, the positive potential for innovations in this area includes: reducing sex trafficking and sex tourism, gaining sexual knowledge and expertise, acting as a therapeutic intervention for paedophiles and other sex offenders, and easing loneliness for those who may struggle in finding companionship. While it will be many years before sex robots will become as advanced as science fiction would lead us to believe, it is clear that in the meantime, there is enormous research and business potential to address these upcoming robotics issues of HCI and ethics.