Human animals are made by, through, and for touch. Biological research demonstrates that humans, like most mammals, enter the world as relational, interdependent beings, entirely reliant on touch for survival and communication. Touch is the first sense to develop in utero and the most important sense for newborn interaction with the world. Touch is integral not only for communication and bonding, but for our early survival and health since it is the touch cells in an infant’s lips that allow it to nurse. In her book on the role of touch in moral philosophy, Linda Holler explores the omnipresence of touch, its role in our everyday lives, arguing that it’s “difficult to imagine life apart from the body’s tactile awareness” (Erotic Morality 15). Touch is a primary modality for negotiating identity and selfhood, for facilitating agency, and for delivering comfort and care. At the same time, it is a site of vulnerability and risk. Though humans may be born seeking contact and nourishment via touch, cultural and socio-political forces are powerful determinants of how particular bodies experience touch, mitigating or accentuating the vulnerability attendant with this most fundamental human sense.
Touch is a central experience in human care. As the development of care technologies (including care robots) increases, the opportunities for caring “technotouch” are proliferating. Touch is especially important for companion robots — often termed social or social assistive robots — designed to engender emotional reactions, attachments and bonds in (and from) their users. Paro, for example, is a life-size animatronic seal that has been successful at calming and comforting people with dementia. Paro gives care by accepting it; users can touch, cuddle and talk to Paro, who will respond with sounds and movement. More recently, Consequential Robotics has developed MiRo, a companion robot with the appearance of a dog/rabbit hybrid, which responds to user movement and touch. Stevie is a humanoid companion robot that responds to social interaction, including touch, with a range of facial expressions designed to imitate and engender emotional connection. Robots like Paro, MiRo and Stevie, which are designed to engage users’ embodied affects — to touch, and be touched in the various tactile and affective meanings of the term — often provoke concern, even anxiety in academics, journalists, and activists who worry that robot care could easily exacerbate, rather than mitigate human isolation, marginalization, even obsolescence, a perspective formulated on the assumption that so-called real or legitimate social, embodied caring contact is definitively human. Touch plays an important role in such anxieties; often care robot fears are expressed in terms of contact, as the concern that robot care lacks the specialness of ‘human touch’, ascribing an ineffable quality to human contact.
In addition, any kind of touch always involves a degree of risk. Touch is a “reversible” sense (Puig de la Bellacasa, “Touching Technologies, Touching Visions” 300); we simultaneously touch and are touched by the “not-self” matter of the world. As much as skin can appear as a boundary that contains and separates the self from the world, it is, in its tactility, a reminder of human inseparability from the world. Anything I touch, touches me; I am affecting and affected. Touch can be harmful, even deadly; skin is a highly permeable barrier, absorbing the world’s nourishing elements and gases as much as its toxins. It is with attention to the power and vulnerability of touch that we propose to examine the social and ethical implications of assistive robots in human healthcare. The workshop will consider the vulnerability of human tactility, and what happens when porous, tender affective surfaces of organic bodies encounter synthetic matter designed for social assistance and care.
This interdisciplinary workshop proposes that scholars working on the neuroscience, phenomenology, sociology, culture and ethics of touch, as well as the design and engineering of haptic technologies developed for affective care, come together to share ideas toward the development of a framework for assessing the potential social and ethical impacts of technologies, especially robots, designed to deliver affective care. In other words, we seek to combine an understanding of the neuroanatomical mechanics of touch with considerations of actual and imagined scenarios of human/nonhuman contact and the sociopolitical structures that influence embodied vulnerability in order to develop frameworks for assessing the social and ethical impacts of affective technotouch.
To this end, we will consider how roboticists might incorporate a sensitivity to nuanced, context-specific embodied touch, and its relation to experiences of vulnerability, care, risk, affect and power, into care robot design.
There will be three overlapping themes which we will use to structure the workshop. We intend to explore how these themes interlink and affect one another. The themes are:
1. Robot touch and the neuroscience of human/robot encounters
2. Designing caring touch
3. Addressing power and vulnerability: asymmetrical embodiment and robot design
The workshop aims to address a number of key research questions related to the overarching workshop themes, for example:
1. How does robot touch differ from human touch?
2. How can robots account for the diversity of (disabled, ageing, neurodivergent) human haptic sensitivities?
3. What benefits or disadvantages might accrue from human/robot affective touch (for the diverse humans involved, their human caregivers, the healthcare systems that support them, etc.)?
4. How might we consider the ethics of technotouch to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of care technologies?
5. What are the phenomenological properties when humans and robots touch one another in ways typically associated with comfort and care?
6. Do human/robot care relations and affective encounters demand new frameworks for interpreting the social, ethical, political implications of touch?
7. Is human/robot caregiving necessarily asymmetrical?
8. How might robots be made vulnerable in tactile encounters with human users?
9. How can/might robots account for asymmetrical vulnerabilities in their human users?
10. How is human vulnerability alleviated or exacerbated by robot touch?
11. Can (and/or should) robot touch replace human touch?
12. What is “ethical touch”? Are robots capable of it?
13. How do/should robots receive human touch? What are the risks of human/robot haptic intimacy?
14. How do practical design limitations, including cost, constrain the imaginaries we have for robot touch?
15. Do robot technologies alleviate or exacerbate social isolation and marginalization? What are the complex contextual factors at play in these cases?
16. What implications do care robots and other assistive haptic technologies have for individuals living with disability or chronic care needs?