Is There a Robot 'Friend' in Your Future?

The idea is not as crazy as it may seem, given the aging of the population

By Steve Outing for Next Avenue | Photo: Courtesy of Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation

Nov. 9, 2017—Human relationships will never go out of style. But as robotics technology and artificial intelligence (AI) advance, and robots gain greater “social” abilities, we humans will form relationships with our robot helpers. We may even come to feel as though they are our friends.

Is that really something we want? It’s hard to imagine that having a robot as a friend is a future many of us would desire. But human nature may pave the way for these relationships. And it may be inevitable.

A big reason is practical: People are living longer and there’s an expanding demographic bulge of people over 65, many of whom will need some form of care as they age. Elder-care experts foresee a shortage of human caregivers to meet ever-growing demand. Robots of some form will be necessary to fill the gaps. (Should you have the misfortune of being bedridden, a robotic bear might lift you to give your human aide’s back a break, for example.)

A number of initiatives around the world are underway to create robots that act as health care aides or personal “butlers.” It’s not just that technology is advancing and it’s now possible to create cool, socially adept robot helpers. In the years ahead, there will be a real demand for them.

The Health Care Aide of the Future?

What will this robot helper be like? Perhaps like the Care-O-bot being developed in Germany, a funky looking wheeled robot with arms and a round screen as a head. It might be a bit more human-like, as with the Pepper personal robot from Softbank Robotics, with its cartoonish head and a screen on its chest. Pepper’s claim to fame is its ability to “perceive emotions.” (“Pepper is the first humanoid robot capable of recognizing the principal human emotions and adapting his behavior to the mood of his interlocutor,” according to the company’s website.)

Or maybe it will be more like Zenbo, the smaller household robot that its maker, Asus, describes as “Your smart little companion,” who can turn on the TV and read recipe instructions while you cook, but can’t actually make a meal or load the dishwasher.

Care-O-bot and Pepper bring to mind the robot helper in the 2012 film Robot & Frank. Aging jewel thief Frank is given a health care robot so Frank can remain living alone in his home even though he has mild dementia. Robot cooks meals, reminds Frank to take his medications, does the gardening and (oh, yeah) assists in Frank’s brief return to burglary. Robot has a range of skills that are years away from being possible, but this charming fiction rightly suggests how robots will help keep some older adults who need assistance from having to move from their homes.

A Caregiving Robot With Human Characteristics

The physical form of care robots of the future is important. There’s good reason that early care robots are physical “beings” (human-like, cuddly animal, cartoonish shape): It’s easier for people to form a relationship with a physical form containing an AI, vs. a disembodied voice in a box a la Amazon’s Echo device, according to Elizabeth Broadbent, associate professor in health psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She’s been involved in research demonstrating that many older adults using AI-based personal robots come to interact with the robots as important companions.

Broadbent’s research suggests that while people can form some attachment to a personalized voice AI on a digital tablet or computer, the attachment is much stronger when the AI is in a robot with a physical form. A souped-up Echo perhaps could engender some feelings of connection in a person (the movie Her suggests as much, to an outlandish degree), but it’s more likely that feelings will develop through a relationship with a robot in physical form.

Forgetting the Robot Is a Machine

Am I creeping you out with talk of “relationships” with robots? It’s most likely that when care robots become sophisticated enough to engage in conversations with you, you’ll be fully aware that this faux human is just that, says Broadbent.

But human wiring tends to get in the way of overwhelming logic, and you may fall into interacting with a robot as though it were a person.

Here’s Astrid Weiss, a human-robot interaction researcher, describing why this is so, from a 2017 TEDx talk: “Even if we think it’s stupid, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s not reasonable to treat a computer like another human. We simply do it; it automatically happens… (Because) the social interaction is a deeply rooted human need.”

Author and futurist Richard Yonck addresses such issues in his recent book, Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence, which chronicles how emotions are being incorporated into AI interfaces and forthcoming robots. He says computer and robot interfaces are moving toward offering context in interactions with users. In other words, the AI could learn to converse with you much like another person because it takes into account all that it already knows about you and has gleaned from “talking” with you.

An Emotional Connection

At the point where a robot or AI is responsive to your personal needs and highly personalized, there likely will be some emotional connection between robot/AI and you. Yonck says someone could actually become grief stricken at losing such an intelligent agent which was knowledgeable about them personally. “If that was to go away, it could be traumatic,” he says, perhaps akin to losing a pet.

As we age, then, robots may be in our future. At elder-care facilities, robots could assist human staff, perhaps deliver meals and medication, maybe even provide companionship by reading stories or playing games. In the home, personal robots might offer reminders to take prescriptions, monitor your health, make phone or video calls for you and summon help in an emergency. These are good uses for this burgeoning technology.

Is it all a good thing? Let’s give the last word to Sherry Turkle, professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, who believes that replacing human time with robots for older adults is not where we should go. “I believe that this breaks the compact between generations,” she says. “These machines do not understand us. They pretend to understand… To me, it lessens us. It is an inappropriate use of technology. With the right social priorities, we get more people in jobs for seniors. Asking robots to do this job is asking more of machines and less of each other.”

Are care robots good or bad or somewhere in between? In the coming years you’ll get to decide — for older loved ones or yourself.

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