Human Touch in the Coming Era of Smart Robotics

Zhengchun Peng

In my parents’ generation, Chinese people were generally reserved when it came to physical affection. So I don’t recall my mother kissing me good night or my dad hugging me regularly while I was little. School in my village wasn’t a place for physical expression of emotion either. My friends and I wouldn’t high-five during the team-plays.  

Things started to improve when I left the small village for college in Beijing. My classmates came from all over the country, and some ofthem were less reserved. In playing games and sports with them, I gradually became a little more touchy-feely. After college, I moved tothe U.S. for grad school. As an international student, I was introduced to a local host family, Hank and Helen McKenney. This picture is me with them.

They treated me like their own child and called me their Chinese son. In this relationship, I experienced the power of human touch as part of American culture. Every time we got together, Hank would always give me a hug. Now, Hank is very tall with a big tummy, and I am small and skinny, as you can tell. So when Hank gives me his belly-first hug, it not only conveys friendship, but also comfort and support.

I liked that feeling very much, and quickly grew into this hugging habit. Later, I met a girl and she decided to become my wife after I hugged her many, many, many times. Then our son came to the world, and I found touching was one of the few ways I could communicate with him. So I take every opportunity to connect with him physically. I let him sit on me when playing with him, I hold him when reading story to him, I cuddle him to sleep, kiss him goodbye, and hug him when I walk in.

Over the years, the touchy-feely behavior in my family has become one of the core family values. And we practice it not just during the happy and easy times, but during the difficult times as well. For instance, when my wife and I want to stop our son from indulging in something, we would hold him tightly while he cries out of his stubbornness. When I have an argument with my wife, I would try approaching her and giving her a pat, instead of walking away, even if I hold all the truth. The physical interactions I have with my family have been transformative. They have taught me more about my value as a husband, a father, and a human being.

As I was becoming more touchy-feely in my life, technology advanced rapidly. And I’m worried. Why? Because in my family, like so many others, technology is getting in the way of human interactions. We simply can’t take our eyes off our phones or tablets in many occasions including on the living room sofa and at the dinner table with our loved ones being present.

Our relationship with parents is suffering too. We spend more time checking on them through FaceTime than in person. And we communicate with colleagues and friends often by WhatsApp, or WeChat, rather than sitting together and talking face to face.

Now this is the dramatic contrast I experienced: though human touch taught to me by Hank, I bond very well with those close to me; but with advanced technologies, I am often driven apart from them.

The truth is that technology is making us less human. We are used to think what a device should be like so it is user friendly, but have you ever thought about what we look like to a smart phone or a computer? Let’s figure this out together by looking at a typical day in our lives.

When we wake in the morning, the first thing we do is using one finger to poke our phone screen and surf the internet for the latest news that interests us. In the office, most of us get our work done on computers, so we spend most of the day watching the computer screen, while listening to music from online radio. After work, we start poking our phone screen again, constantly checking Facebook Feeds or WeChat Moments until we go to bed. In all of these activities, the devices see only one finger, two eyes and two ears of us. They don’t see any other part of our body at all.


So to a device we look like this Tom Igoe’s cartoon, having a one-finger hand with two ears, and one eye. Why only one eye? Because digital information and pictures displayed on screens are often in 2D format, not like our 3D physical world, so we don’t need to use two eyes to perceive the depth information in the third dimension, one is enough.  Sadly, Tom Igoe’s insight reminds us that technology is not only driving us apart, but also diminishing us.

If that’s where we are now, things may get even worse when robotics and artificial intelligence coming into our lives in the future. The Japanese tech mogul Masayoshi Son predicted that in about 30 years from now, the number of smart robots on the earth will be as many as the human population – which is around10 billion by 2050. Where do you think these 10 billion robots will hang out? While some of them will be at the workplace, I think most of them will be living in our homes.

We may have one robot in our office, handling admin tasks, but we will have a few in our home, probably one in our kitchen, preparing food, one in our living room, playing chess with us, and one more in our bedroom, reading stories to our kids.

This picture shows one of the most capable and human-like robots ever created. Her name is Sophia.


Using her eyes made of cameras, she can read and understand our facial expressions. With her ears made of auditory sensors, she can perceive our voices and analyze our speech. And she can access a vast array of information on the cloud. With all these functions, Sophia can talk to us on any topic we may have in mind, including telling jokes when she notices we are bored.

At the current stage, Sophia still lacks one important function -- a sense of touch. That’s why during the interview with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show, he could not shake her hand. If he did, his hand might be crushed as she doesn’t know how to control the strength of her handshake yet.

Well, I'm a researcher and my work focuses on developing electronic skin for robots, so they can have a sense of touch like humans. I am passionate about my work, because I value touch, as you know by now. So let me tell you what Sophia will be like with a sense of touch.

My research team at Shenzhen University -- and colleagues in other institutions around the world -- have already figured out how to create robotic touch with a sensitivity comparable to that of a human fingertip. So it won’t be long before Sophia can not only perceive strength when shaking people’s hands, but also measure the texture, weight and solidity of the object she grabs. In fact, she is going to become so sensitive that she can feel the warmth of human’s skin, and the silky softness of baby’s hair.


Besides, engineers are teaching robots to use touch to understand human emotions. When our emotions are aroused, there is an increase in the electrical conductance of skin. Research from Stanford University has shown that robotic touch can detect that change in human skin and determine the emotion behind it.

Therefore, robots with a sense of touch will be able to provide gentle care to humans, identify the emotions of humans, and interact with us with all sort of emotions, including pleasure and pain.

With smart phones today, we are already struggling to stay connected to those close to us. What will it be like with several intelligent robots around us all the time? Today most kids will ignore everything if we give them a tablet to play virtual games. What will it be like when they can play real games with human-like robots, such as the robotic cowboys in the Sci-Fi movie Westworld?

I imagine the time we get to physically connect with people will grow shorter and shorter. But the foundation of human civilization is the physical connection we make with each other. From a warm handshake or sympathetic hug to a congratulatory pat on the back, we have developed complex body languages, emotional expression, social consciousness, and culture. These are precious human characteristics, which I believe robots and artificial intelligence will not be able to surpass.

For example, when the day comes that robots can identify the constantly-changing emotions of babies and the needs of the elderly, and act accordingly by providing gentle care to them, will you let robots take care of your little ones and your parents?

I am not in a position to address the question ethically or philosophically, but scientifically, this question is about whether or not human touch can be replaced by robotic touch. As a researcher spending years working on human-robot interface, I don’t believe so.

Human touch is irreplaceable when it comes to life development, relationship growth, and the need for self-fulfillment of human beings. On the contrary, robotic touch will not be able to offer the intimacy and empathy that a child needs during critical periods of psychological development. Robotic touch cannot impart the biochemical effect of a hormone to even start a relationship. At the happiest event and the proudest moment, people love to have their families and friends around, giving them high-five, tap on the back, and warm hugs. I don’t believe having robots around can satisfy that feeling of accomplishment.

After my life-changing experience with human touch in the U.S., I started to hug my parents when I came back to China.

Although it seemed awkward at the beginning, we got used to it without much hurdles. Those hugs not only reclaimed a more natural relationship between me and my parents, but also helped create a more touchy-feely culture among the three generations of our family. You see, hugging is contagious, in a good way.

The version of a human in the eyes of smart phones and computers is a sad creature. We should not let the other 9 fingers of our hands and other parts of our body become redundant, but reclaim them so we see the full range of our physical potentials. We ought to reach out to show our compassion, support, and willingness to cooperate by becoming more touchy-feely. With the increasing suffering from social isolation in the tech-saturated world, I assure you that people will react very positively to our initiative of physical interactions.

In welcoming the era of human-robot coexistence, we should establish a right relationship with robots, so we don’t lose ourselves as human beings and don’t lose our kids to smart robots. To do this effectively, we need to wisely choose how we spend our time and energy, and give priority to physical connections with people.  

So join me to embrace the power of human touch.

Thank you.