Robot companions

Nothing Eileen Oldaker tried could calm her mother when she called from the nursing home, disoriented and distressed in what was likely the early stages of dementia. So Ms. Oldaker hung up, dialed the nurses’ station and begged them to get Paro.

Paro is a robot modeled after a baby harp seal. It trills and paddles when petted, blinks when the lights go up, opens its eyes at loud noises and yelps when handled roughly or held upside down. Two microprocessors under its artificial white fur adjust its behavior based on information from dozens of hidden sensors that monitor sound, light, temperature and touch. It perks up at the sound of its name, praise and, over time, the words it hears frequently…

After years of effort to coax empathy from circuitry, devices designed to soothe, support and keep us company are venturing out of the laboratory. Paro, its name derived from the first sounds of the words “personal robot,” is one of a handful that take forms that are often odd, still primitive and yet, for at least some early users, strangely compelling…

But building a machine that fills the basic human need for companionship has proved more difficult. Even at its edgiest, artificial intelligence cannot hold up its side of a wide-ranging conversation or, say, tell by an expression when someone is about to cry. Still, the new devices take advantage of the innate soft spot many people have for objects that seem to care — or need someone to care for them.

Their appearances in nursing homes, schools and the occasional living room are adding fuel to science fiction fantasies of machines that people can relate to as well as rely on. And they are adding a personal dimension to a debate over what human responsibilities machines should, and should not, be allowed to undertake.

Ms. Oldaker, a part-time administrative assistant, said she was glad Paro could keep her mother company when she could not. In the months before Mrs. Lesek died in March, the robot became a fixture in the room even during her daughter’s own frequent visits…

“I’m the only one who can put him to sleep,” Mrs. Lesek would tell her daughter when the battery ran out.

He was very therapeutic for her, and for me too,” Ms. Oldaker said. “It was nice just to see her enjoying something.”

RTFA. This is just a touch of the discussion, considerations ranging from ethical to practical, including the absurdities required by lawyers and Libertarians.

I think anyone who’s experienced long-term companionship with a dog or cat will understand exactly where some of these designs are heading – and why. The usefulness of helping someone to be happy – especially in trying times – seems to me to be the easiest thing in the world to understand. Leave the rest for seminarians to discuss in some ivory tower.

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