Dan Chen, a MIT Media Lab Research Assistant, inventor of RIT (Robot Intimacy Technology) and 1-Hour Design Challenge Sex Toy judge, takes inspiration from a variety of sources and individuals—amongst those is the curmudgeonly comedian Larry David.
"I got into Curb Your Enthusiasm by Larry David and he's just got [this knack for] observing real world situations", he says. "He was hugging someone in the TV show and after hugging them for too long he got an erection. He's got this funny face which the person couldn't see when they're hugging each other so I thought, 'what would happen if I revealed the other person's face when I'm hugging them?'" Chen ultimately gives David credit for inspiring one of his creations, the Intimacy Machine, which allows you to hug someone without breaking eye contact:
Chen is interested in creating these objects to facilitate social experiments and see how robotics can transcend normal notions of what humans need in order to feel loved and comforted. "I realized it all comes down to mental projections...you don't really need to add a face to [a robot]. You just need little hints for people to mentally attach and project their humanity onto things." So through engineering, a field perhaps considered cold and indifferent towards human emotion, he explores topics like vulnerability, social comfort and discomfort, and the healing power of touch (whether real or simulated).
"I realized it all comes down to mental projections...you don't really need to add a face to [a robot]. You just need little hints for people to mentally attach and project their humanity onto things."
Chen says he finds himself feeling somewhat awkward within certain social situations—something I'm sure we all can relate to. Ironically, he says his ultimate motivation for creating robots is to find a way to express himself and his care for others. "I constantly think about that, like, what are those scripts that we use everyday that establish that sense of connection? Sometimes I will use those scripts as part of my robots...and these scripts translated into robotic actions may seem sort of cheesy, but when you actually use the device, when something's touching you and you feel that sense of pressure…You can't help it, in your mind you physically feel this sense of togetherness."
Who knows if this is the future of intimacy and technology, but after speaking with Chen, it's hard to ignore it as a very distinct possibility.
"I actually got this idea when I was in the shower. I was just thinking, what is the most vulnerable moment in our lives where we need intimacy the most, and what if I take that and swap it out with robots? This explores the idea that not only are humans slowly being replaced by robots, robots are also evolving to be more and more like humans."
"For this project, I was thinking about the DIY community culture where people make things instead of purchasing them to solve problems...You sort of give life to this thing that you program to grant yourself a sense of intimacy. People in the world are sometimes afraid to ask for help, and this is supposed to enable or empower them, to give them this idea of 'oh, I can help myself'—almost like self-help. But it's also this weird boundary between something making you uncomfortable and making you happy."
"In the corporate setting, during icebreakers and all that, there's this thing about putting hands together to give that sense of intimacy and facilitate interaction- it's so scripted, we know that, but it works when we perform it. So the Team Spirit Generator sort of speaks to, why are we performing these small interactions to give that sense of togetherness? And at the same time it's also asking, why does this even work? "
This article is part of the Core77 Sex-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technology and design are shaping the future of intimacy and sex.
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