Why these scientists are teaching robots to give good hugs

Five years ago, my artist/engineer pal Kal Spelletich drew at crowd at an Institute for the Future conference by demonstrating his "Huggerer," a pneumatic robot that delivers free hugs. Now robot hugs are the subject of new scientific research! At a recent human-robot interaction conference, researchers from Stuttgart, Germany's Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems presented their efforts to explore "how robots can be more effectively designed and taught to give the kinds of hugs that humans will love." From Evan Ackerman's fascinating interview with lead researcher Alexis Block in IEEE Spectrum:

IEEE Spectrum: Why is research on robot hugs important?

Alexis Block: Robot hugs are important because people love to give and receive hugs. Virginia Satir, a well-known family therapist, was famous for saying, "We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth." Sometimes, we are put in new or uncomfortable situations where we might not be near our loved ones, but that doesn't mean we don't need the support and calming effects that a hug provides. Research on robot hugs is important so we can one day use technology to provide the emotional support and health benefits of hugs to many people, wherever or whenever they need it.

What makes a good hug?

The results from our experiment suggest that to make a good hug whoever/whatever you hug should be compliant, warm, squeeze you, and release you immediately when you indicate you're ready for the hug to end.

Why do you think people like hugging robots so much?

I think there are several reasons why people like to hug robots. First, hugs are a natural human expression of affection. Hugs are how we connect with each other. Humans not only instinctively connect with each other through touch but also to their surroundings and new, exciting things they see. Many people are excited about the potential of robotics lately. Perhaps, people's interest in hugging robots is a combination of wanting to explore an interesting object and wanting to make some kind of a personal connection to a robot.

I had several self-proclaimed introverts participate in my experiment. Some of them told me that they preferred hugging the robot over hugging other people because the robot would let them go when they indicated they were done with the hug, whereas their friends and family members would sometimes hug them for too long.

Next, while it's just a guess at this point, I think people may like hugging robots partially because they know the robot isn't really alive and won't judge them for how long of a hug they want or need.

"The Importance of Teaching Robots to Hug" (IEEE Spectrum)