Human touch, compassion and eye gaze…vital partners to bionics and robotics

By Bionics Queensland Published 19 Aug 2019
Dr Fiona Kerr

Dr Fiona Kerr


Future healthcare, particularly for the injured, disabled or aged, will depend on a sensitive mix of human and robotic interventions. Australian neuroscientist, Dr Fiona Kerr sees the fast-emerging bionic era as an opportunity for greater recognition of the neurophysiological impacts of interaction between humans, and, between humans and AI to optimise healing as well as the lifestyle benefits that robots will bring (

As technology such as apps, ‘home help’ robots and remote medical advisors feature more in our lives, Dr Kerr says “we need to better understand the proven benefits of human touch, eye gaze, voice and sharing physical space with other people. When we interact through eye or skin contact, speaking or sharing physical space, we synchronize with each other electrochemically. Nowadays, it is possible to measure the numerous benefits that this interaction brings e.g. increased neuroplasticity in our brains and improvements in our immune health. It also delivers increased trust and empathy and improves our complex problem-solving capabilities. Many of these physiological effects don’t occur at all when humans interact with technology”.

Without the bonding and trust building that human-to-human interaction brings, users of bionic devices (especially those who have received a device or implant to ‘open up their world’) may lose some, if not most of the benefits the device could bring. For this reason, Dr Kerr is now speaking out globally about the need to balance the presence of humans and robots in healthcare settings. Retaining opportunities for human eye gaze and human touch is vital in healthcare as is the ability to build ‘empathic connections’ between humans (all of which delivers a greater sense of wellbeing).

AI-enabled robotic carers will deliver many benefits in a hospital, home or aged care setting. However, they cannot deliver ‘retinal eye lock’, described by Dr Kerr as “the point where one person’s retina locks with another. This locking of retinas synchronises specific areas in the brain and quietens the sympathetic nervous system and amygdala. The end result is a lower level of stress, a boost to our immune system and our serotonin and dopamine levels.

The warm touch of another human being amplifies these effects through c-fibre stimulation in the skin. A caring conversation resonates at 3-8 MHz between the two brains, further increasing trust. In contrast, daily interaction with technology (likely to increase with more robots in the workplace) too often has the opposite effect, lowering our overall level of engagement with other people.

According to Dr Kerr, “Our capacity to engage is further reduced by technology if the processes involved create a constant desire to use it. Clearly, this type of neural response is not conducive to trust and social network building, but without an understanding of the dynamics involved it is unlikely that society’s uptake of robots will slow down”.

Bionics, robotics and AI are already powerful partners – this is a three way marriage that has the potential to shift our human life span, health, cognition and capabilities. The challenge for global leaders is ensuring that a human-centric approach to innovation and technology uptake is prioritised.


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