Ro­bots as Com­pan­ions: To Be or Not To Be?

Distinguished Magazine - - Contents -

An in­no­va­tive new pur­pose for these sil­i­con be­ings has emerged—in the form of be­ing com­pan­ions for us lone­some hu­mans.


While the prospect of ro­bots be­ing sen­tient, em­pa­thetic com­pan­ions may be mind bog­gling to some, the day when AI-pow­ered but­lers pam­per the af­flu­ent is not very far off.

As­sist­ing dis­abled peo­ple, help­ing the blind, and per­form­ing crit­i­cal pro­ce­dures dur­ing surg­eries are just a few of the ap­pli­ca­tions that ro­bot­ics have im­me­di­ate rel­e­vance in. How­ever, an in­no­va­tive new pur­pose for these sil­i­con be­ings has emerged—in the form of be­ing com­pan­ions for us lone­some hu­mans.

Kuri is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this emerg­ing trend in ro­bot­ics. Kuri be­longs to a new sub­set of ro­bots re­ferred to as the “com­pan­ion ro­bot”. These ma­chines are in­tel­li­gent, and are de­signed to make for use­ful as­sis­tants at home. Ro­bots of such a na­ture al­ready ex­ist, and can be seen help­ing dis­abled peo­ple with their tasks. Kuri is de­signed to be an all-pur­pose com­pan­ion, and is more like a mem­ber of your house­hold.

These as­tound­ing new de­vel­op­ments carry with them a set of new dilem­mas and chal­lenges that we need to ad­dress.

What will be the na­ture of our re­la­tion­ships with these con­scious, sil­i­con be­ings? How will we in­ter­act with them? Will they have their own lan­guage? Can a ro­bot ever be a re­place­ment to the lov­ing arms and em­brace of a hu­man be­ing? And if they can, what code of ethics gov­ern the treat­ment of these in­di­vid­u­als? And on a more sin­is­ter level, will ra­tio­nal thought and anal­y­sis even­tu­ally lead our sil­i­con friends to view us as… ex­pend­able?

To be hon­est, a lot of these ques­tions are a moot point at this stage. The un­der­ly­ing tech­nol­ogy has not reached such lev­els of com­plex­ity and op­ti­miza­tion. Vac­u­um­ing ro­bots are a com­mon sight in de­vel­oped na­tions. With the ever-im­prov­ing tech­nolo­gies as­so­ci­ated with ro­bot­ics, vac­u­um­ing ro­bots are tak­ing things to the next level. Ro­bots that map out your house, and in­tel­li­gently op­ti­mize their clean­ing pat­terns ac­cord­ing to your home’s floor plan, are al­ready avail­able in the mar­ket. These ma­chines time their dis­pos­als in such a way that their own­ers only have to take out the trash once in 2 weeks. A 2017 mar­ket re­search piece pre­dicted that the global ro­bot mar­ket would grow to 34.1 bil­lion US$ by the year 2022. While clean­ing ro­bots are ex­pected to make up a ma­jor­ity of the share, com­pan­ion and ther­a­peu­tic ro­bots are also ex­pected to be a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to this fig­ure.

The de­mand for ro­bots is pri­mar­ily spear­headed by the bur­geon­ing se­nior cit­i­zen pop­u­lace of de­vel­oped na­tions. Ro­bots that take care of the needs of el­derly cit­i­zens are highly de­sired in these na­tions; a high dis­pos­able in­come and a need for util­ity cou­pled with the ever-low­er­ing prices make these mar­kets a sen­si­ble des­ti­na­tion for our sil­i­con friends.

Has­bro’s “Joy for all com­pan­ion” is an­other com­pan­ion ro­bot re­leased by a ma­jor mar­ket con­tender. The prod­uct is es­sen­tially a life­like cat or puppy dog com­plete with fur, sans the com­pli­ca­tions as­so­ci­ated with own­ing a fe­line or ca­nine buddy.

Pre­lim­i­nary mar­ket test­ing demon­strates that these com­pan­ion ro­bots of­fer stress re­lief and com­pan­ion­ship—Has­bro has gone as far as do­nat­ing many of its ro­bots to the Meal­sOnWheels pro­gram, of­fer­ing se­nior cit­i­zens a hot meal and an op­por­tu­nity to fight iso­la­tion.

“Buddy” by BlueFrogRobotics is an­other prime ex­am­ple of a com­pan­ion ro­bot. Built on an open source plat­form, Buddy “con­nects, pro­tects, and in­ter­acts” with each mem­ber of your fam­ily. Buddy pro­vides a host of “smart ro­bot” ser­vices such as home se­cu­rity, smart home, mo­bile telep­res­ence, per­sonal as­sis­tance, and care for el­ders.

CES 2018 was a stage to a host of ther­a­peu­tic and com­pan­ion ro­bots. As a mat­ter of fact, the “CES Best of In­no­va­tion” win­ner in the house­hold cat­e­gory was In­tu­ition Ro­bot­ics El­liQ ro­bot. El­liQ is be­ing po­si­tioned as an “ac­tive ag­ing com­pan­ion”

Al­fac pro­vided demos of its new com­pan­ion ro­bot “My Spe­cial Al­fac Duck”, in­tended to help chil­dren fight can­cer. Jerry the Bear is an­other ro­bot pro­duced by the same com­pany, tar­geted at chil­dren with Type 1 di­a­betes.

The fu­ture of ro­bot­ics is a fas­ci­nat­ing one in­deed, with our sil­i­con com­pan­ions mov­ing be­yond mere util­i­tar­ian func­tions, and into our house­holds and lives.

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