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Sign of the times: Can hugging machines solve the touch crisis?
As the American loneliness epidemic reaches alarming new heights, one artist theorizes on what connection might look like in the future.
- The Compression Carpet is a machine created by Los Angeles-based artist Lucy McRae that simulates a hug to a person craving intimacy.
- Research indicates that nearly half of Americans lack daily meaningful interpersonal interactions with a friend or family member. This loneliness epidemic is accompanied by a touch crisis.
- McRae's art and neuroscience suggest that it is affectionate touch that we are deprived of in our increasingly touch-phobic society. New sensory technology seeks to solve this problem.
We are, according to research, on the brink of a mass human (dis)connection crisis United States.
A new study by Cigna found that nearly half of Americans lack daily meaningful interpersonal interactions with a friend or family member, while 43 percent say they have weak relationships and experience feelings of isolation, and a devastating 18 percent claim that they feel there is no one that they can talk to. Alongside this loneliness epidemic is a touch, or lack-of-touch, crisis.
As technology rapidly begins to take over various aspects of our lives from food delivery to gene editing, could machines possibly replace human touch? One artist thinks it might be the future.
Technological Antidotes For Touch
Photography: Scottie Cameron
The Compression Carpet is a machine created by Los Angeles-based artist Lucy McRae that simulates a hug to a person craving intimacy.
It works like this: A person is sandwiched horizontally between a pair of cushions which offer a full-body embrace. The cushions are colored peach and brown, providing the aesthetic of warm skin tones in order to enhance the illusion of being cradled by human flesh. To use the machine you would lie down inside the cushions while another person cranks the handle to squeeze the machine around you. He or she determines the firmness of the machine's hug.
The machine was unveiled at the San Francisco exhibition Festival of the Impossible, which explored the future intimacy between humans and machines. Participants were able to try out the Compression Carpet, with many leaving with "a glazed look in their eyes" after being squeezed McRae told Dezeen.
McRae, a science fiction artist and body architect, uses her art to examine a statement she makes on her website claiming, "We are going to have a revolution of what it means to be human."
As we move toward a touch crisis in which we're inundated with technology to the detriment of our mental well-being, McRae says that the Compression Carpet and its sister creation, the Compression Cradle, question whether technology will vie for our affection because of our obsession with the digital.
It might already be happening. Like it or not, smartphones wrapped in synthetic flesh might soon be a thing.
Researchers have developed a skin prototype called Skin-On Interfaces, sensitive skin-like cases that can be put over mobile phones, watches, or laptop touchpads to simulate skin-on-skin touch. The fake flesh intelligently registers nuances of touch and associates them with various human emotions. For example, anger is associated with hard pressure, while stroking is understood as comfort. The next step is adding anthropomorphic bells and whistles to make the smartskin more realistic, such as temperature features and, uh, embedded hair.
Because skin is what we use as an interface when interacting with other humans, the idea behind Skin-On was to add this human-like interface to our communicative mediation devices., explained Marc Teyssier, a developer of the synthetic sleeve, to Hypebeast.
Our Need for Connection
The irony of our modern predicament has been pondered many times over: Today we are perpetually connected via smartphones and various social media platforms, and yet studies are showing that we're more isolated than ever before. It fact, those who never used social media scored lower on the UCLA loneliness scale than heavy users. And according to Cigna's study, it was Generation Z, once dubbed the iGeneration, who were the loneliest.
This connection deficit isn't just heartbreaking, it is toxic. We are hardwired to connect, our well-being depends on it. Multiple studies have shown that the lack of human connection has alarming impacts on physical and mental health such as increasing blood pressure, higher cortisol levels, and an increased risk of substance abuse and addiction. The New York Times reported that growing, substantial evidence is linking loneliness to physical illness along with functional and cognitive decline. It even predicts premature death better than obesity.
What Cigna found after analyzing its loneliness study results was that it is rooted in a disconnect between the mind and the body.
"We must change this trend by reframing the conversation to be about 'mental wellness' and 'vitality' to speak to our mental-physical connection," said David M. Cordani, president and chief executive officer of Cigna, in the report. "When the mind and body are treated as one, we see powerful results."
It might be that we underestimate the need for a connection that goes beyond the cognitively processed interactions we receive through smartphones. Could we need somatic feel of another human in order to reconnect?
Plenty of research indicates how important human touch is. For instance, famous studies demonstrating the vital importance of affective touch on children's cognitive and social development. According to Francis McGlone, a professor in neuroscience Liverpool John Moores University, millions of years of human evolution has inscribed the need for affectionate forms of touch into our genomes.
"We are destined to cuddle and stroke each other at predetermined velocities," McGlone told The Guardian in 2018.
What McRae's art suggests is that it is this specific kind of touch, touch that conveys compassion, that we are deprived of in our increasingly touch-phobic society. It's something that no text, GIF, reaction, or emoji can replace. But perhaps new sensory technology will.
Maybe society will come to believe that it isn't just the pressure squeeze of affectionate embrace or the sensory feel of soft, squishy skin that is amiss, but a beating human heart behind that touch that we seek to reconnect with. After all, there must be some significance in the fact that hearts of those emotionally and socially close to one another beat in sync.
Or maybe we're all inevitably headed for a brave new world where machines hug us 'till they drug us. Who needs physical human companionship when smartphones are sheathed in faux flesh?
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>