Can robot be a cud­dly com­pan­ion? This one trills, blinks, yelps

Lat­est de­vices show they can fill emo­tional needs for some

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Amy Har­mon

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


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?”

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