Your Roomba can’t smell fear. Nor can it be afraid when you stalk up behind it to plop your cat on top for another dopey internet video. It’s lacking a whole dimension of sensory communication that we sweaty, panting meatsacks take for granted: Smell. Pheromones. B.O. But what if they did have this biological ability grafted on — would it make them more appealing and useful, or less? That’s the question Kevin Grennan explores in his design project entitled “The Smell of Control: Fear, Focus, Trust.”
“Our relationships with robots will be based on falsehoods and ignorance.”
Grennan created concept drawings of three industrial robots (designed for bomb disposal, surgery, and industrial assembly), each outfitted with a gross-looking blob of pink, sweaty flesh that secretes a specific pheromone or chemical signal. The surgery-bot emits oxytocin, which when inhaled has been shown to render humans more trusting. The industrial assembler secretes androstadienone, a chemical in male sweat that “could enhance the performance of female employees in its vicinity.” And the bomb disposer, well, sweats. “[It] releases the smell of human fear,” explains Grennan in an interview with We Make Money Not Art. “It has been proven that humans can identify this specific smell and it tends to enhance cognitive performance in. I propose that this robot would enable surrounding humans to work more effectively and to differentiate dangerous situations from false alarms.”
If you’re thinking Ewwwwww, that’s the point: Grennan personally believes that making robots more anthropomorphic is a bad idea, and these conceptual drawings are intended to argue that point in a visceral manner. “Our relationships with these machines will be based on falsehoods and ignorance,” he writes in his artist’s statement. “This is especially worrying if we also believe that these machines are to become more prevalent in our lives and more sophisticated over time. I have created a number of projects that explore the edges of anthropomorphism and ask if this approach really is the way we want to relate to future machines.” One of those projects is an actual, working, prototype robotic sweat gland. “It uses a simple valve mechanism to release artificial sweat from a reservoir,” Grennan tells Co.Design. Ewwwww.
“While from a functional perspective these ‘sweating’ robots might be able to perform their tasks and interact with humans more efficiently,” Grennan writes, “I hope that the dark thought of robots taking subconscious control of humans will cause viewers to reflect on how we really want to interact with these machines in the future.” No problem, Kev — mission accomplished. Now where’s my Roomba, so I can kill it with fire?