Can Robots Help with Touch Hunger?

May is mental health awareness month, and new research shows that the pandemic has interfered with our mental health quite a bit. One of the mental health issues that has increased severely is touch hunger, or affection starvation, a type of stress that comes from a lack of physical contact. This type of stress has effects on hormones that regulate mood and also may affect immune functioning.

People who live alone usually have the chance to hug friends, share a high-five with a colleague at work, or book a massage. For more than a year, though, these people have had little opportunity to touch other people. Zoom and Skype don’t do the trick, and pets help, but not enough.

A recent survey including 28% people who lived alone found that half felt touch deprived and 58% felt isolated. This was a group the majority of whom lived with our people; results among those who live alone would surly be much higher.

As more of us get vaccinated, we still mask and social distance in most situations. Touch hunger may continue to e a problem into the future

Automation to the rescue?

A German study examined interactions between humans and robots. The roots were helping students make decisions about coursework. They were humanoid robots and were interacting directly with no safety barriers.

At random, some of the robots lightly patted the hands of the humans. None of the humans pulled away from the robot touch. Most smiled in response. They even reported being happier after the interview than those who did not receive a touch from the robot.

And, notably, the students who’d been patted were more likely to accept the robot’s advice and sign up for the class it recommended.

The researchers figure a good hand-pat could help increase compliance among humans. But, in light of the need for safe, non-contagious touch for isolated people during the pandemic, ours are also wondering whether this study provides a path to automated therapy for touch starvation.

The study joins many more in the literature on the question of whether robot touch could have benefits for humans. Philosophical questions about replacing human touch with automated touch have kept pace with the evidence that it can be done.

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