Saturday, September 17, 2005

Robot Seal Steals Hearts

I spotted an article in about the Japanese Paro robot. Paro has been around awhile. It is a fuzzy white baby seal robot that wriggles around and bleeps when it is held and stroked. They are becoming quite popular in Japan and researchers are looking to them for help in relieving the burden of warehousing the world’s growing population of needy old-timers.

The robot enhances the lives of the solitary by giving them a companion:
Kobayashi rarely goes out. Her only connection to the outside world is the TV, a newspaper delivered to her door and her dusty telephone. She has no computer, no Internet access, no mobile phone.
Completely alone, but not lonely-the old lady has a companion that is more than capable of responding when she slips into a funk and begins complaining about the hand that life has dealt her.
"His name is Kotaro," Kobayashi says, patting a white fluffy object that looks like a seal. "It's named after my deceased father."

It brings back the feeling of social contact that many old people feel after many of their old friends have died and their families have moved away.
It allows them to express their opinions and get positive feedback:
For her, Paro is more than a robot. She bought a rattan basket for him to sleep in "because, you know, he's like a baby." She converses with him whenever she feels the need to talk.
Asked for an example, Koybayashi says she might tell her pet that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is really an idiot.
(But he likes Paro too! Movie)
It recovers the childhood world of play.

It is turning out that people respond very well to robots that help them yet are dependent on the human. This co-dependency creates a bond that enhances the subtleties of communication in the interface between the creature and the machine.

It will be interesting to see how this advances. The developers of the robots will continue to refine the responses of the things to make them more loveable and irresistible. The marginalized old people will become more dependent on them. Will we see images of tortured faces of neglected crying patients after they had been abandoned without batteries for their fuzzy robots? How will the courts decide when an old geezer leaves a fortune to a robot seal?


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