Getting Turned On: Study Shows Touching Robots Causes Arousal

Intriguing research on relating to technology.

As if we didn’t need more evidence that humans are getting really turned on—to be cute—about more than our own biological equipment. Researchers at Stanford University will be presenting a study at the upcoming International Communication Association in Fukuoka (Japan) called “Touching a Mechanical Body: Tactile Contact With Intimate Parts of a Human-Shaped Robot is Physiologically Arousing.”

The paper, authored by Jamy Li with Byron Reeves and Wendy Ju, details their experiments of having undergraduate volunteer’s touch the “private area” of a less-than-anatomically correct robot.

With one hand hooked up to a skin sensor, the subjects were instructed by a NAO Robot to point, or even touch, a part of its body with their other hand, after which the robot would instruct the participant the correct, medical term for that part.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Considering, though, that this is a scientific test it’s pretty obvious that the Stanford researchers weren’t just teaching some undergrads basic robot anatomy.

With the sensor data they’d collected, they discovered an interesting connection between contact and arousal.

“Touching less accessible regions of the robot (e.g., buttocks and genitals) was more physiologically arousing than touching more accessible regions (e.g., hands and feet). No differences in physiological arousal were found when just pointing to those same anatomical regions,” the researchers said in the paper.

It’s important to note that while the Stanford team was measuring physiological arousal that doesn’t necessarily mean what you may think.

You see, in context, what they were measuring wasn’t directly sexual arousal but rather elevated reactions via that skin sensor. But what’s really interesting about the experiment is what it says about our reactions to “human-like” technology.


“Robots can elicit powerful social responses from people,” Li writes in his study. “These responses arise from an inherent tendency for people to treat media that are ‘close enough’ to being human like real people. These responses are not simply an act of playing along—they occur on a deeper physiological level. People are not inherently built to differentiate between technology and humans. Consequently, primitive responses in human physiology to cues like movement, language and social intent can be elicited by robots just as they would by real people.”

Stepping towards cynicism, it could very well be argued that the Stanford team was experimenting less on how we relate to robots than physiological reactions to human-like forms. If, for example, they’d used a doll instead of the kind-of-human form of the NAO, would the subjects have had the same levels of arousal?

And, conversely, if the object they were “touching” was less physically like them but projected more relatable interactions would they have had more, or less, of a strong reaction?

That we’re becoming more and more aroused—to use the more general term for it—by technology is undeniable. Just look at someone who uses a sex toy that in no way resembles an actual human body part: by association a user will often get excited by it, and may even become uncomfortable seeing the same shape, or texture, outside of the bedroom.

While there is clearly much more research to be done, Li’s study shows that researchers are clearly aware of the changes we’re feeling toward both technology itself as well as humanoid robots. They are exploring this phenomenon as well as its possible repercussions—which is very exciting in all kinds of ways.

Image Source: Stephen Chin