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.

Jewish writer reports from Iran – raises a storm in America


Inside a synagogue in Esfahan

A row has broken out over allegations of antisemitism at the New York Times, America’s most vaunted name in journalism and a newspaper with a large Jewish readership. The storm centres on a column about Jews in Iran written by New York Times journalist Roger Cohen and a cartoon attacking the recent war in Gaza.

The newspaper, and Cohen in particular, has been accused of being too critical of Israel and an apologist for Iran and its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Cohen’s column was written from Iran about the country’s small Jewish minority. His piece acknowledged the difficulties the group experienced and portrayed them as part of an Iranian society that he said was more tolerant, democratic and sophisticated than many American critics allowed.

Such sentiments might seem uncontroversial, but in America no one touching on issues around Israel or antisemitism escapes close scrutiny. Cohen was attacked by Jewish writers and bloggers. The Jerusalem Post dubbed him “misled”, while the Atlantic Monthly called him “credulous”. Others went much further…

Perhaps part of the reason for the intensity of the attack is the fact that he is Jewish himself. “I think it’s partly my name. The ‘self-hating Jew’ things can come to the surface in some of the responses,” he said. Another reason is that the column appeared in the Times, which many media experts hardly see as a fierce critic of Israel, given its home audience. “As soon as I read the column I thought a lot of people would be unhappy,” said Jack Lule, a journalism professor at Lehigh University.

Any critic of Israel’s government comes to expect charges of anti-Semitism. It generally is more ferocious than the old McCarthy Days [and post-McCarthy] label of anti-American against any citizen who challenges U.S. foreign policy. After all, Israel occupies a special place in the American mythology of Freedom Fighters We Love and Support.

The ranks of Americans with friends in Israel’s Left has diminished – mostly as that independent Left has dwindled through age, collaboration with Centrist and Right politicians. So, that American Jewish voice shrinks, as well. Even the last of my old friends who once shared the occasional cell during earlier American repressions – are gone – the Arab and the Jew, they used to call themselves in argument. Though they both were Jews.