A robot that makes your best companion

Last Updated 05 July 2010, 16:20 IST

Paro is a robot modelled 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 behaviour based on information from dozens of hidden sensors that monitor sound, light, temperature and touch.

“Oh, there’s my baby,” Ms. 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. “Don’t rush,” Lesek instructed, stroking Paro’s antiseptic coat in a motion that elicited a wriggle of apparent delight.

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.

Machines as companions
Robots guided by some form of artificial intelligence now explore outer 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, say, 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.

Their appearances in nursing homes, schools and the occasional living room are adding fuel to science fiction fantasies of machines that people can relate to as well as rely on.
And they are adding a personal dimension to a debate over what human responsibilities machines should, and should not, be allowed to undertake.

Oldaker, a part-time administrative assistant, said she was glad Paro could keep her mother company when she could not. In the months before Lesek died in March, the robot became a fixture in the room even during her daughter’s own frequent visits.
Even when their ministrations extended beyond the robot’s two-hour charge, Lesek managed to derive a kind of maternal satisfaction from the seal’s sudden stillness. “I’m the only one who can put him to sleep,” Lesek would tell her daughter when the battery ran out.

Like pet therapy without the pet, Paro may hold benefits for patients who are allergic, and even those who are not.

Differing opinions
It need not be fed or cleaned up after, it does not bite, and it may, in some cases, offer an alternative to medication, a standard recourse for patients who are depressed or hard to control.

But some critics see the use of robots with such patients as a sign of the low status of the elderly, especially those with dementia. As the technology improves, argues Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it will only grow more tempting to substitute Paro and its ilk for a family member, friend, pet in various situations.

But if there is an argument to be made that people should aspire to more for their loved ones than an emotional rapport with machines, some suggest that such relationships may not be so unfamiliar.

Strangely compelling
Marleen Dean, the activities manager at Vincentian Home, where Lesek was a resident, was not easily won over. When the home bought six Paro seals with a grant from a local government this year, “I thought, ‘What are they doing, paying $6,000 for a toy that I can get at a thrift store for $2?’ ” she said.

But after a study, Dean found, “It’s something about how it shimmies and opens its eyes when they talk to it. “It seems like it’s responding.” Even when it is not. Part of the seal’s appeal, as per Dr Takanori Shibata, the computer scientist who invented Paro with financing from the Japanese government, stems from a kind of robotic sleight of hand.
Dr Edward Boyer of the University of Massachusetts Medical School plans to test the system, which he calls a “portable conscience,” on Iraq veterans later this year. The volunteers will enter information, like places or events that set off cravings, and select messages that they think will be most effective in a moment of temptation.

Then they don wristbands with sensors that detect physiological information correlated with their craving.With a spike in pulse not related to exertion, for instance, a wireless signal would alert the person’s cellphone, which in turn would flash a message like “What are you doing now? Is this a good time to talk?” It might grow more insistent if there was no reply.

With GPS units and the right algorithms, such a system could  suggest other routes when recovering addicts approached places that hold particular temptation. It could show pictures of their children or play a motivational song. “It works when you begin to see it as a trustworthy companion,”  Boyer said. “It’s designed to be there for you.”

(Published 05 July 2010, 16:17 IST)

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