Can People Actually Get Turned On By Robots?

Published April 6, 2016
Updated July 10, 2019

Stanford researchers have just pushed knowledge on the relationship between humans and robots one step further. Is robot sex in our future?

Robot Sex

Image Source: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A recent Stanford University study that saw researchers building on the idea of the “uncanny valley” has turned up some surprising results.

The uncanny valley hypothesis describes the U-shaped relationship between how “human” a robot looks, and how comfortably humans receive them. The theory suggests that for a “familiar but distinctly non-human robot,” a natural human response would be “to look at them as a friendly, non-threatening computer,” according to the study’s press release.

Stanford researchers took the concept one step further, asking if these robots could provoke a stronger emotional response than friendliness in humans, such as physiological arousal (in layman’s terms: Can humans get turned on by robots?)

To answer this question, researchers Jamy Li, Wendy Ju, and Byron Reeves used Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO human-shaped robot, whose appearance the release describes as a cross between “C-3PO and Wall-E.”

The humanoid robot was programmed to verbally instruct participants to touch 13 parts of its body — ranging from the neck to the feet — and participants were fitted with a sensor on the fingers of their non-dominant hand to measure physiological arousal and reaction time.

Results showed that when participants touched the robot in intimate areas — such as the buttocks — they were more emotionally aroused than when they touched non-intimate areas like the neck and hands. Indeed, the researchers’ findings seem to suggest that people can, indeed, be “turned on” by a robot.

“Our work shows that robots are a new form of media that is particularly powerful. It shows that people respond to robots in a primitive, social way,” said Li.

“Social conventions regarding touching someone else’s private parts apply to a robot’s body parts as well. This research has implications for both robot design and theory of artificial systems.”

While groundbreaking — at present not much is known about the power of touch between a robot and a human — researchers have mixed feelings about their findings.

“Social robots can elicit tactile responses in human physiology, a result that signals the power of robots, and should caution mechanical and interaction designers about positive and negative effects of human-robot interactions,” the researchers said.

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