Electric skin, VR porn, and professional cuddlers: the future of the human touch

In December, the City University of Hong Kong issued a press release. A professor of biomedical engineering, Dr. Yu Xinge, had pioneered a new invention: electronic skin.

The patch of e-skin the researchers built is designed to stick to the palm of your hand, covering it like an adhesive glove, and convey low-level voltage to your skin when required by its programming attachment. The result feels like pressure – as you might experience when catching a ball, feeling an animal run over your skin, or touching a cactus. Except without any actual ball, animal, or cactus.

The list of potential applications is huge. Virtual reality and mixed-reality are already billion-dollar markets, and at some point this year it’s expected that a full third of Americans will be gamers of some kind. Feeling our way around new virtual worlds is a thrilling concept, and the educational possibilities are limitless: learning new manual skills, or how to use specialised tools, may soon be possible without leaving your sofa.

There are other applications for virtual touch too, as we’re doubtless about to find out. CES 2023, the world’s biggest consumer electronics show, is upon us. The world's most interesting tech companies use CES to show off their most innovative products, and prototype demos at CES often spawn billion-dollar projects.

But to explain its connection to electronic skin, a bit of background is necessary: CES is famous - perhaps even most famous – for its VR pornography rooms. These are frequented almost exclusively by men, though this may be due to the conference's history as much as wider gender differences: in 2020 the show banned companies from hiring women in lingerie as advertisements, but it has a slightly chequered past when it comes to female inclusion. Memorably, in 2019 CES rescinded a robotics award given to a female-use sex toy on the grounds that the toy was "immoral, obscene, indecent, profane, or not in keeping with [the Consumer Technology Association’s] image.”

The VR porn rooms and their associated brands are where we can expect e-skin to take off. Sextech is growing explosively, and virtual reality sex with it. In the privacy of your own home, clad in a VR headset and optional penis sheath, you can see actors or computer-generated models perform for you in a way that looks, and may soon feel, like the real thing. A living, breathing partner is increasingly irrelevant to the modern sexual experience.

Naturally, the potential for ethical problems is endless: when real actors are used to make the software, users can control what they do and how they behave in augmented reality, and the actor is unable to withdraw their consent (assuming it was given freely in the first place). And when the VR actors are generated, users are able to adjust their skin colour, age, and outfits in ways that might make your e-skin crawl.

But it shouldn’t surprise us that lonely or isolated people try to replicate the feeling of touch. Wanting physical contact with other people is fundamentally human: we have always lived in groups, and even the most inane of modern business transactions is usually accompanied by a handshake. We touch others inadvertently on crowded transport; we kiss, hug, or shake hands with both friends and strangers when we meet them and when we part; we fist-bump, back-slap, or help groom each other depending on our gender and norms.

These tiny intimacies are particularly important in moments of pain or distress: stroking a friend’s hair or giving someone a hug often allows them to feel safe enough to be emotionally vulnerable. During Covid-19, rates of mental health problems soared, which is just what we’d expect to see in a touch-starved population (let alone one facing the additional challenges of a pandemic). 

Humans, like some other mammals (including at least cats, pigs, rodents, and non-human primates) have in their skin specialised nerve receptors called CT afferents. The ‘C’ is because they’re part of Group C nerve fibres, which differ from Groups A and B because they’re not insulated by myelin sheaths. The ’T’ is for ‘tactile’, and ‘afferent’ just means something that conducts responses towards the central nervous system. 

Unlike other nerves, CT afferents aren’t triggered by pain or temperature. They respond only to light, gentle touch. And these CT afferents are found all over our bodies: with the exception of our genitals, anywhere we have hair (so that includes the arms, legs, face, stomach, and back for both males and females) we have CT afferents. The best way to elicit a response from CT afferents in our skin is by very gentle stroking. 

We don’t know exactly why these cells exist: they don’t serve to warn us of danger, or guide us to resources. But the most prevalent hypothesis in neurology and social science is that their role is social, and they’re designed to give us positive (pleasurable) feedback from social interaction. This in turn can help modulate (reduce) our stress response, limiting the physical toll that fear takes on our bodies.

We see the importance of touch at several crucial stages of life. Newborns cry less when their mothers touch them more. They also sleep more quietly, develop faster, and are more likely to be open to approach by other adults. And it’s not just the infants who benefit: parents who touch their infants more experience higher levels of oxytocin, which creates a positive feedback loop encouraging even greater social bonding. We also know that societies which show greater physical affection towards children are significantly less violent overall, and vice versa.

One particularly famous experiment shows that humans are far from unique in bonding with infants via touch. Harry Harlow, an American psychologist, conducted a series of experiments on baby rhesus monkeys in the 1960s. He separated infants from their mothers at birth, raising them in bare wire cages with no social contact. Harlow found that when presented with two synthetic ‘mothers’, one made of hard, rough wire and the other of soft, woollen fabric, the infants would choose the latter – even when the wire mother consistently presented them with food. Monkeys raised only with the wire mother developed severe digestive problems, which are often associated with stress.

Wire Mother, Cloth Mother

We see a similar desire for touch in adult humans, although social conventions mean that people rarely express this directly. Romantic relationships with high volumes of (non-sexual) physical affection are significantly happier than those without, although it’s worth bearing in mind that causation might run in both directions here: people in happier relationships may touch each other more as a result. Nonetheless, several studies have found the same effect, to the extent that even imagining a partner’s touch can improve self-confidence and risk tolerance.

As we might expect, some gender differences exist in our desire for touch: at least some research has found that married men are less happy with the amount of non-sexual touch they receive in their relationship compared to married women. Without cross-cultural comparisons, it’s difficult to say whether this is an artefact of biology or culture – although we can look at social behaviour to provide some clues. Women generally touch each other more than men, and respond more positively to touch than men, perhaps in part due to the phenomenon we’ll refer to as “no homo.” 

If men are touch-starved in their social lives, it makes sense for them to seek a compensatory level of additional touch from their partners. Women, whose gender roles are unthreatened (and may even be reinforced) by expressing physical affection, can demand less physical contact from their spouses.

For those without a partner, alternative sources of regular touch can be hard to come by. Hook-ups and professional cuddling services sometimes stand in for more personal contact, though both have their challenges (whether emotional, logistical, or financial). A more promising option is team sports, which represent a powerful way to combine lasting friendships with physical touch, as well as the endorphin rush and associated physical benefits of regular exercise. An alternative route is to seek out companionship with animals: stroking a pet can create many of the same calming psychological and physiological responses as doing the same to a person. 

And for those who hate sports, don’t like hook-ups, can’t afford regular cuddle sessions, and are allergic to pets: e-skin contact is probably coming soon.

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