It’s All in Your Head: Interview with Spike W. S. Lee, Professor of Marketing at the University of Toronto

9 December 2022 by Jannah Loontjens in Life

While almost everyone is acquainted with Kangaroo, the robot that gives comfort to so many elderly and disabled people, few would be able to name its inventor. I got to know Spike W. S. Lee, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto, seven years ago, when he was one of the academics working at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS).

At that time, Lee was working on a couple of inventions that would help people in long-distance relationships feel closer to each other, not least because he and his girlfriend were living four thousand kilometers apart. Research as mesearch, as they say. The couple is happily married now, with a two-year-old boy. I spoke with Lee about how things did not work out the way he and his NIAS colleagues expected.

Sirens: Professor Lee, when you were at NIAS, you and your colleagues were particularly focused on the tactile element. You invented a grip that you could hold on to while Skyping, and that would give pressure if your Skype partner pressed it, as if you were holding hands. Why do you think that this did not catch on? Is “touch” overrated?

Lee: We were so excited. In just a few years, we thought, the Frebble, as we called it, would feel practically the same as real touch. Now, we were right about that; the touch did feel real. But we were wrong about something else: the immediacy wasn’t there. To make it work, partners needed suspension of disbelief, like what is required in theater.

Sirens: How do you think this immediacy can be attained?

Lee: Adding other senses, for one. We’re now testing whether one person’s emitted smell signals thoughts, motives, and feelings to her communication partner. That creates immediacy. Soon, maybe already next year, or 2025 at the latest, bodily signals like smells will be perfectly reproducible by technology, and at that point tech-mediated relationships may come with much better realism than they currently do.

Sirens: Imagination is also important for a feeling of proximity, isn’t it? Imagining the other to be close. If I understand you correctly, your lover’s smell enables you to imagine him or her to be close. What do you think is the most important aspect for this feeling of proximity, Professor Lee? You mentioned smell. Could it also be voice? Images?

Lee: The keyword there is feeling, a feeling of proximity, as you put it. Now, feeling is a psychological thing. It’s created with multiple inputs. In other words, multiple input channels matter. Think about the essential nature of social interaction. I can’t really read your mind. I know, I know, I’m a psychologist, and I’m supposed to be able to, but just like all other psychologists, maybe except Freud, I can’t read your mind. All I have is a bunch of inputs from you, through various sensory channels: visual inputs like your facial muscle movements, posture, gesture, gaze, etc.; tactile inputs like your tap on my shoulder; temporal inputs like our synchrony of smile, nod, or whatever. From these multiple inputs, my mind constructs the feeling of proximity with you, which obviously could vary from very close to very distant.

So which input matters the most for this feeling of proximity? I don’t think the answer is singular, like “touch is most important.” I don’t even think it’s plural, like “touch and smile are most important.” I think it’s fluid. My personal hypothesis is that it’s whichever input is most scarce or precious from the target. It’s a bit like receiving gifts. Does it mean more to you if someone celebrates your birthday with you by spending time with you, or by getting you a gift? It depends. If your friend is a super busy person, it probably means more to you if she’s taking time off to spend time with you than if she sends you a $200 gift card. But if your friend is poor, it may mean a lot to you if she spends her precious little money to get you something nice. The giving of something scarce, whether it’s time or money or effort, signals that the other person cares enough about you.

Similar story when it comes to communication via different input channels. If your partner isn’t very keen on talking on the phone, but still does it for you, only for you, because of you, it’s a beautiful thing. It contributes big time to your sense of connection, or proximity, to him. But if he is a chatty man to begin with, the story would be different. It’s a powerful psychological experience when a person sacrifices whatever resources he has the least of, for someone else. Nothing creates more proximity than that.

Sirens: But wait a minute, you seem to be suggesting that love is like a marketplace, based on an economic value of shortage. Love as a bargain, giving the other what is scarce. Isn’t this very much removed from what most people understand love to be? Isn’t love about a feeling of real connection?

Lee: I think what I say is actually opposite to what an econ model of relationship would predict. To be a Homo economicus is to maximize your gains and minimize your losses. If you’re giving away your most precious resources, you’re maximizing your losses. In other words, it’s exactly the opposite of what the econ model would predict.

Sirens: Yes, but it’s still based on a model of scarcity, of an exchange of needs?

Lee: Well, love is about giving and taking. Showing the other that you care is an act of giving . . .

Sirens: But how does this exchange, this bargain, then relate to the feeling of sharing a real connection?

Lee: At the end of the day, it’s about feeling at ease with someone. And this is something created through exchange of different forms of affection, stimulated by various senses. I learned about this while working on our robot Kangaroo. Kangaroo’s success was rather unexpected, but what made it successful was its cuteness. Cuteness creates a bond, even with a machine. How can we have cuteness elicit the right kind of response? What are the psychological variables that would predict that response? These are useful questions, because if a robot is cute, its other social functions often work better.

In fact, my own research on a host of psychological responses to cuteness is closely related to the inventions my lab is developing to benefit long-distance relationships. All of our devices are invented with a clear purpose in mind: to spark joy, for example via the route of cuteness, to make someone at ease, to foster the feeling of proximity to your beloved.

Sirens: Somehow, to me, it sounds a bit scary that we are making ourselves dependent on electricity for a feeling of proximity and ease, substituting real presence. Does this ever scare you?

Lee: Well, eventually we won’t need as much electricity for the various kinds of communication anyway. At this moment we are working on unconscious communication between lovers, also between friends. Basically, unconsciously reading people’s minds. With these tiny chips that can be activated by our nervous system — so they don’t even need batteries — we can share experiences with others unconsciously, even from afar.

Sirens: Share experiences while being apart? Something like dreaming the same dream?

Lee: That’s not a bad comparison. But it would be more realistic than a dream. You would actually have shared memories and shared experiences while being apart. I find that super exciting, a whole new area, where we’re not talking about perception or bodily input but about imperceptible connection that transcends spatial distance altogether.

Sirens: So, in a couple of years I can do another interview with you, without actually speaking or perceptibly communicating?

Lee: Yes. It’s all in your head.


Jannah Loontjens has published acclaimed literary novels and essay collections, including the cult hit Roaring Nineties (2016), on Amsterdam’s bohemian underground. She lives and works in the Netherlands, where she also teaches philosophy. Her newest novel on the April Revolutions will appear fall 2023.

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