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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?
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
A study looks at the ingredients of a good scare.
Catching fear in a bottle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYyNzg1Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTQwMTcyMn0.WtpJ1E_dhK2o09fBpKARynj4_p5NXeklgsXsbd7xr9w/img.jpg?width=980" id="8ff51" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f10dd9188b173f4a36e85e9325507c6b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Photo Boards/Unsplash<p>Previous studies have tracked physiological signs of fear arousal, but none have established a one-to-one correlation between that arousal and specific, actual fear events.</p><p>Andersen says that much of the research has been conducted in lab settings with weak fear stimuli, observing subjects as they experience things like scary videos. Scares in these situations tend to be weak and difficult to measure. Even harder to track in these situations is the link between enjoyment and fear. </p>
Eyes everywhere<iframe src="https://player.vimeo.com/video/109695164" width="100%" height="480" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="267ba87cfb8591ed5830499574d2272a"></iframe><p>Andersen and his colleagues conducted their experiments at <a href="https://dystopia.dk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dystopia</a> Haunted House, a commercial attraction in Vejle, Denmark constructed in an old, run-down factory. The Recreational Fear Lab has a long-standing partnership with the spook shack.</p><p>They outfitted 100 volunteers with heart monitors and sent them on their terrifying way through the 50-room horror mansion. The facility incorporates a number of fright mechanisms including frequent jump scares in which a sudden threat takes a visitor by surprise.</p><p>Researchers surreptitiously observed their participants on closed-circuit video as they made their way through the attraction. They tracked each individual's scares, scoring them for intensity according to their visible reactions. After exiting the attraction, individuals self-reported their experiences in the haunted house.</p><p>Combining these self-reports with observer notes and each participant's heart-rate data gave the researchers subjective, behavioral, and physiological insights into the ways in which fear is experienced, and when it's a good thing or not.</p>
A pair of inverted U-shapes<p>In analyzing their data, the researchers saw two separate inverted u-shape curves. One depicted participants' enjoyment based on their self-reports and observed behavior. A similar u-curve was detected in their heart rates showing that just the right amount of heartbeat acceleration is associated with fun, but too much is too much. It's the terror Goldilocks zone.</p><p>Says Andersen, "If people are not very scared, they do not enjoy the attraction as much, and the same happens if they are too scared. Instead, it seems to be the case that a 'just-right' amount of fear is central for maximizing enjoyment."</p><p>The research suggests that being scared is enjoyable when it represents just a quick minor physiological deviation from one's normal state. When it goes on too long, however, or triggers too severe a physiological change, it becomes disturbing. Game over.</p><p>Andersen notes that this is not dissimilar to the factors known to make interpersonal play enjoyable: just the right amount of uncertainty and surprise. These are, maybe not coincidentally, also the ingredients of a successful joke.</p>
A meteorite that smashed into a frozen lake in Michigan may explain the origins of life on Earth, finds study.
- A new paper reveals a meteorite that crashed in Michigan in 2018 contained organic matter.
- The findings support the panspermia theory and could explain the origins of life on Earth.
- The organic compounds on the meteorite were well-preserved.
Meteor streaks through Michigan sky<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="80b7f30820153b35fc515592d7475f53"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EPu2qnqMYBo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The meteorite that smashed into Strawberry Lake carried pristine extraterrestrial organic compounds.
Credit: Field Museum