Can robot be a cuddly companion? This one trills, blinks, yelps
Latest devices show they can fill emotional needs for some
Nothing Eileen Oldaker tried could calm her mother when she called from the nursing home, disoriented and distressed in what probably was the early stages of dementia. So, 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.
“Oh, there’s my baby,” Oldaker’s mother, Millie Lesek, exclaimed that night last winter when a staff member delivered the seal to her. “Here, Paro, come to me.”
“Meeaakk,” it replied, blinking up at her through long lashes.
Janet Walters, the staff member at Vincentian Home in Pittsburgh who recalled the incident, said she asked Lesek if she would watch Paro for a little while. “I need someone to baby-sit,” she told her. “Don’t rush,” Lesek instructed, stroking Paro’s antiseptic coat in a motion that elicited a wriggle of apparent delight. “He can stay the
See CUDDLE, A
Continued from A night with me.”
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.
“We as a species have to learn how to deal with this new range of synthetic emotions that we’re experiencing — synthetic in the sense that they’re emanating from a manufactured object,” said Timothy Hornyak, author of “Loving the Machine,” a book about robots in Japan, where the world’s most rapidly aging population is showing a growing acceptance of robotic care. “Our technology is getting ahead of our psychology.”
For recovering addicts, doctors at the University of Massachusetts are testing a wearable sensor designed to discern drug cravings and send text messages with just the right blend of tough love.
For dieters, a 15-inch robot with a touch-screen belly, big eyes and a female voice sits on the kitchen counter and offers encouragement after calculating their calories and exercise.
Robots guided by some form of artificial intelligence now explore space, drop bombs, perform surgery and play soccer.
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 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 a personal dimension to a debate about what human responsibilities machines should, and should not, be allowed to undertake.
As the technology improves, argues Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it will only grow more tempting to substitute Paro and its ilk for a family member, friend or actual pet in an ever-widening number of situations.
“Paro is the beginning,” she said. “It’s allowing us to say, ‘A robot makes sense in this situation.’ But does it really? And then what? What about a robot that reads to your kid? A robot you tell your troubles to? Who among us will eventually be deserving enough to deserve people?”