Can Robots Give Good Hugs?

We could all use a hug once in a while. Most people would probably say the shared warmth is nice, and the squishiness of another living, breathing meatbag is pretty comforting. Hugs even have health benefits.

But maybe you’re new in town and don’t know anyone yet, or you’ve outlived all your friends and family. Or maybe you just don’t look like the kind of person who goes for hugs, and therefore you don’t get enough embraces. Nearly everyone needs and want hugs, whether they’re great, good, or just average.

So what makes a good hug, anyway? It’s a bit like a handshake. It should be warm and dry, with a firmness appropriate to the situation. Ideally, you’re both done at the same time and things don’t get awkward. Could a robot possibly check all of these boxes? That’s the idea behind HuggieBot, the haphazardly humanoid invention of Katherine J. Kuchenbecker and team at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany (translated). User feedback helped the team get their arms around the problem.

A Different Kind of Soft Robotics

In the context of therapeutic and elder care robots, they of course must be both gentle and responsive. So Dr. Kuchenbecker and team are starting off with hugs and haptic interactions. Hugs are somewhat simple to replicate compared to complex movements like bathing someone, or turning them over in their bed.

HuggieBot wants to give you a gentle embrace.HuggieBot has sensors in its arms to ensure that it gives a friendly hug and not a life-threatening squeeze, though we wonder if there are any fail-safe measures in place if a sensor goes bad. Another sensor on HuggieBot’s back detects the human returning the hug. When they lift up their arms or lean against the robot’s arms, it breaks the embrace. Hopefully.

Dr. Kuchenbecker and team knew that HuggieBot should be soft, warm, and roughly human-sized. Most importantly, it should know when to release from the hug. Something else HuggieBot can do that we hadn’t considered — it can adjust to a person’s height and posture the way a human would.

Physically speaking, HuggieBot looks about as huggable as a robot could. It is dressed comfortably in a gray hoodie and long purple skirt, and its tablet face bears a pleasant expression. HuggieBot’s upper body is both inflated and heated to make it more pleasant to hug. They even wrapped the arms in foam and put socks on the hands. We assume that HuggieBot is half dressed in order to show what’s underneath.

At the end of the day, you’re still getting hugged by robotic arms, which is more than a little bit scary. But they seem to do a nice job, which you can see in the video below featuring an earlier version of HuggieBot. It doesn’t just pull you in, it waits for your approach before closing its big industrial pincers arms around you.

Squeeze Play

Hugs are about both physical and emotional warmth, and although it’s more difficult to grow an emotional bond with a robot or even an inanimate object, it’s definitely not unheard of. Think about kids with their stuffed animals and security blankets. Or Tom Hanks and Wilson, his pet volleyball.

Let’s play devil’s advocate here. It’s not as though every human gives perfect hugs just because they’re human. We all know someone who hugs too hard or too long, or too often. What if you could train a robot to hug you exactly how you want to be hugged? If we’re serious about hugger robots becoming a thing, there are a lot more things to consider that would make the hugs even more pleasant and human. Like if you were crying, the robot might throw in a few pats and some open-handed back rubbing for extra comfort. It’s not that it’s a difficult problem to solve. The hard part is getting people to accept the idea and expose their viscera to a machine.

A robot leads seniors in an exercise routine.
A robot leads seniors in an exercise routine. Image via Reuters

In Japan, robots are already playing a part in elder care. A nursing home in Tokyo has a whopping 20 different robots roaming around. Many of them are designed to play games and carry on conversations with the residents, as well as leading them in exercise routines.

Would you hug a robot? Would you let a robot brush your hair? I would jump at the chance to hug HuggieBot, as long as Dr. Kuchenbecker was nearby to help out if things went south. In fact, I think robot hugs are better than no hugs at all, especially for lonely senior citizens who might really benefit from a friendly squeeze on the regular.

But that’s kind of an innocent take. Do we really want to go down the road of robotic intimacy? As with many things, it depends what people do with it.

29 thoughts on “Can Robots Give Good Hugs?

  1. I suppose it depends on the person receiving it. But to me it is NO! Maybe if one was in dementia it might be helpful.

    Then again petting a dog brings comfort to many. Small children like stuffed animals

    This seems so harsh on my part but I don’t have feelings for a robot.

  2. This idea was mentioned in the novel JPod by Douglas Coupland. The idea being that software developers might lean somewhat closer to the autistic side of the autism spectrum and therefore might not like to be touched by people but still might feel better for a hug. I see that that idea is expressed in the linked article as well but referring to autistic children.

  3. To me hugs include the personal history with that person, the talks, the smell, the emotions (be it sad, happy, aroused, caring). I can see that might work well with people that don’t have the need (or simply cannot) for sharing a wider spectrum of feelings with other humans though.

  4. It’s not the touch that matters, but that someone does it.

    When I was about to get out of rehab (getting back to walking) in the fall of 2019, someone I guess would be an “attendant” came and said goodbye, and touched my shoulder in that medically approved form. I still don’t know why she bothered, but it meant a lot.

    If touch was all that mattered, we can touch ourselves all we want. But it’s not the same as someone else deciding to touch us.

    1. same when you wake up from narkosis here (had a bunch of heavy operations): there was always a nurse sitting next to my bed petting my arm. very nice, especially in combination with the rescribed medication.

  5. It was all fun and games, a cute hug happening, until suddenly the robot seemed to freeze for a second . . . and then started tightening its arms. And the screaming started soon after – – – –

  6. For me it gets down to who is doing the hugging. If it is the kind nurse or wife or child then it makes the hug great. But if it is from someone I don’t trust or respect the hug is worthless or even negative. With a robot I feel there is a pure mechanical process with no true feelings but just programing.

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