Noa robot © Getty

Future counsellor robots could comfort humans with a simple pat on the hand, new study suggests

Research from Germany has examined how a counselling android can use caring physical contact to comfort – and persuade – humans.

Don’t think the robot above could be persuasive in any way? You might after it gives you a comforting pat on the hand. At least that’s according to an intriguing new study into how an android’s physical touch can impact humans.

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Carried out by researchers from Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen, the study saw 48 students engage in a one-on-one school counselling conversation with a humanoid robot (Softbank Robotics’ NAO). While the robot simply moved its hand towards some of the participants (the control group), for others it patted their hand three times in a ‘touch-release’ action.

Interestingly, scientists noted that while most participants smiled and even laughed at this movement – particularly if performed at the end of the conversation – none of them pulled away.

Compared to the control group, the touched students reported higher levels of emotional wellbeing (as measured by a post-experiment questionnaire). They also showed more interest in a specific academic course suggested by the robot during the conversation.

Students who were patted were more likely to give the robot a marginally higher score for physical attractiveness (although these participants still only rated poor NOA a 2.5 out of 5 on average).

“A robot’s non-functional touch matters to humans. Slightly tapping human participants’ hands during a conversation resulted in better feelings and more compliance to the request of a humanoid robot,” said the paper’s authors Dr Laura Hoffmann and Prof Nicole Krämer.

“It is furthermore remarkable that simply tapping the back of participants’ hands showed such an effect. Involving more complex and prolonged touching from a robot might increase engagement and compliance.”

Read more about the science of caring robots:

As the researchers argue, this small study – one of the first to examine the impact of robot-initiated touch – suggests that through the use of comforting touches, robot counsellors could better persuade patients to engage in healthy activities such as exercise.

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However, they caution that much about human-robot interactions are complex, with there still more to be learned about the difference between human and robot touch.