From From humble beginnings, such as a fridge that updates your shopping list, a strange array of responsive robotic companions have evolved. Many of us are already in relationships with our technologies - often highly fraught ones. Affectionate robot pets have been creeping into our homes (and our hearts) for a while now.
We name our roombas, and there's research into teaching them to avoid you when you're stressed - but is programming it to nuzzle you taking things a step too far? And why are there now robotic human body-parts that can detect and respond to the intention behind a physical stimulus?
From creations that will improve our experience of films to video games controlled by our physiological arousal, there are many fun applications for this science. More importantly, these devices have found a range of therapeutic uses. By visually representing physiological fluctuations, they help encourage personality disorder patients to practice mindfulness meditation. Children with autism spectrum disorders shy away from eye contact. So, robots are being developed to help assist these children in interpreting facial expression without the need for uncomfortable sessions with a therapist. Games can teach us to focus and concentrate. Biofeedback is opening up new ways to monitor and adjust our bodies and emotional states.
In an increasingly stressful environment, society is turning to technology to cure the ill-effects of over-stimulation, and even getting their pets involved. Your level of emotional arousal can be read through a webcam by marketers as you browse online, and they are increasingly specialising in tailoring products to play on that arousal. Robot teachers can track students' engagement, adapting to this dynamic environment. Employers are monitoring their workers' concentration. Self-hacking is on the rise. The same metrics useful for fitness tracking are tightly connected to emotion. These are life-changing devices, but is it time to consider how to regulate the development and use of machines that are gathering an expanding gamut of personal information about us? Are there implications that we are yet to consider, for example when we allow elderly people to believe that the robot seal they play with is actually a living animal?
While light-hearted innovation may give some of our most infuriating digital companions a much-needed 'personality transplant', do we really want devices that can discern our intentions from vocal and gestural cues? How do we regulate lie-detectors that have the potential to make mind-reading a part of the legal system? Would a robot that pours you a beer facilitate a sedentary and isolated lifestyle in those suffering from alcoholism? What about a camera that only takes a photo when it detects a smile? Great! But how would you respond when your fridge, in an attempt to improve your quality of life, refused to open until you gave it a cheesy grin? We have been extending ourselves into a shared virtual space for a long time now, where distance is no obstacle to relationships. Letters, phones and skype calls have brought our loved ones ever-closer with increasing emotional enrichment, from text and emoticons to sound and vision. New products add heartbeat and warmth to the sensory arsenal with which we attempt to fight off loneliness and a sense of disconnection. But do we want our clothes to tell everyone around us how we're feeling or try to cheer us up when we're down, and who can harvest the information that these devices collect?
As emotive technologies invade our belongings, buildings, and infrastructure, how will our relationships to things and others evolve? An online project that visualises the diversity of feelings expressed in personal blogs also demonstrates the volume of information that can be automatically mined from the same source (e.g., name, age, location, weather and nationality). New metrics for comparison are arising - a community may now be judged on its emotion map, as well as crime and employment rates. Devices to watch and feel shoppers' reactions as they move from indecision to decision will be used to influence our deliberation over products. Employers can create a 'weather-map' of their office's emotional atmosphere.
Online teaching systems that are emotionally aware have demonstrated superiority over conventional systems. It isn't just robots that are becoming responsive to the subtleties of our emotions; it is marketers, employers and even complete strangers. As developers march forward, it is time to think about how to achieve the balance that will allow society to maintain its privacy as well as continuing to nurture valuable personal interactions, while using technology to tackle the major obstacles we face. With the demographic constitution of many nations becoming increasingly dominated by older generations, robot nurses may become instrumental as care-givers. But if we are trading away our privacy for intuitive pieces of hardware, perhaps we should insist that they do more than give us a good hug in return.