Granny and the robots

Joseph Engelberger emerged from last year’s international robotics exhibition in Japan, proclaiming his exasperation with humanoid robots.

They’re “just stunts. There are dogs, dolls, faces that contort and are supposed to express emotion on a robot. They are just toys.”

What makes Engelberger’s outburst so surprising, is that he is generally recognised as the “father of modern robotics” a pioneer in the field of industrial robotic design, and the developer of robotic “sensory perception”.

Engelberger’s main complaint is that time and money spent on the research and development of such walking, talking, humanoid toys, detracts from efforts to develop robots with more specific and useful functions.

His HelpMate robot for example, which delivers medicines around hospitals, carries out a task formerly performed by (human) hospital couriers, yet it has no human characteristics, resembling as it does some sort of high tech fridge on wheels.

For Engelberger, humanising the HelpMate is unnecessary for the simple reason that it would not enhance the robot’s performance of the task at hand.

The implication is that robots can never be anything more than efficient machines designed to perform a set of predetermined tasks.

Recent developments in robotics however, show that the relationship between people and robots can be more complex and intimate than Engelberger allows.

Take Paro, for example.

Paro is what is known as a Mental Commitment Robot. Unlike their industrial counterparts, Mental Commitment Robots are designed specifically to interact with people and to provoke an emotional response within us.

Paro interacts via a system of 5 sensors which allow it to respond autonomously to light, touch, sound, temperature and movement.

These sensors allow Paro to interact with its surroundings in a way that suggest it is alive and has feelings and emotions.

Talk softly and it smiles, hit it and it recoils, touch its whiskers and it shies away.

While such actions may, on the surface, appear little more than novelty, preliminary studies in hospitals and nursing homes have shown that robots such as Paro can have valuable therapeutic effects.

According to Paro’s developers for example:

“interaction with Paro can provide the same effects as interaction with real animals. For example, after playing with Paro for a time, a child who could not communicate and smile for more than six months got well, and started to talk and smile again. Elderly people also showed excellent adjustment ability to stress after playing with Paro.”

More importantly perhaps, robots such as Paro may point the may to the future development of robots whose primary function is to offer physical and emotional support.

Japan is already pioneering the use of such social robots, with dolls such as Primo Puel
providing much needed company for isolated elderly people.

As the populations of all industrialised nations continue to decline, it’s not too improbable to imagine such artificial companions taking on an increasingly important role as friends and carers in our homes and hospitals.

Such a robofuture is not without its sceptics of course.

Dr Ken Young, chairman of the British Robotics Association, recently commented that:

“The British will not be satisfied with the idea of robots looking after the elderly. It would seem like a factory to maintain old people and what kind of existence is that? I’d rather be shot.”

While the Japanese may possess a greater level of enthusiasm for and acceptance of their robot friends, than Europeans, I’m not sure that I share Dr Young’s opinion.

As a species, I think we possess an innate capacity to relate to inanimate objects and to anthropomorphise them. We can imagine a relationship with objects such as dolls or computers even though we understand that that relationship, that interaction, is not “real”.

The point is, that this doesn’t prevent us from enjoying such relationships nor does it devalue their benefit to us.

The pleasure and comfort that elderly Japanese derive from their robot dolls is clearly real and meaningful and although it can be easily dismissed as a cultural quirk, for now, it could point the way to a future old age for us all.

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