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Personal Robots: Liked by Seniors and Tykes Alike

Based on writings from, posted by Regine

Editing and Commentary by Dr. Don Rose, Writer, Life Alert


We've heard "the robots are coming, the robots are coming" for years. We've seen the Jetsons. We've seen Blade Runner and Star Wars. Maybe that's the problem; there has been so much buildup for smart machines in books and film that when a real robot comes along, many complain it's lacking. The sci-fi film "2001" predicted we'd have intelligent computer companions by that year, capable of conversation, camaraderie and cleverness - but five years have now passed and we still have no sentient software talking to us like HAL did to his astronaut comrades. In addition, much of the ballyhoo around robots built so far has been more hype than reality. In short, the dream of intelligent humanlike non-carbon companions still seems years away.

However, the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making great strides in a related but different domain: seemingly-alive "animaldroids" that display authentic critter-like behaviors. Several businesses and academic groups are now building and testing such robotic animals. No display of creative HAL-level machine-made conversation here, granted, but that is not the goal; rather, the focus has been on instilling the ability to perform specific tasks, combined with a realistic animal-like appearance. This is a wise choice; AI has historically had a hard time making progress on general intelligence, enjoying relatively greater success with task-specific domains - and we all know from film how sophisticated the ability to mimic a creature's outer look has become.

So far, the robot most in the public eye, the most mass marketed machine, is Roomba - a small self-roaming cleaning machine ("the first sub-$200 robot vacuum") that avoids obstacles and displays at least some degree of smarts (made by the aptly named company iRobot). Some seniors and other adults are finding it useful; the round robovac lets you relegate yet another boring task to automation, and focus on other matters. But some AI diehards may say hey, this isn't really AI, Roomba is just a mechanical turtle; it does not look, act or evolve like a truly intelligent creature should. There is no semblance of communication with its owner, no emotional connection, no higher order intelligence.

I take a different view. Roomba is just an opening salvo in the oncoming onslaught of smart robots that will begin appearing in the next few years. We may now be where the PC (personal computer) industry was circa 1982: waiting for the first big hit applications to show up (remember VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet?), which make you not just want to get the machine, but HAVE to get it, in order to get things done better, faster and cheaper. The age of the "PR" (personal robot) is at hand - and some even have hands.

To delve further into this dawning age of the PR, this article brings together posts from a blog that often deals with personal robots and robotainment. The first piece below discusses how senior citizens are one of the groups that should benefit most from having a PR - for example, to keep them company (with simple conversation, relaying of news, playing games, etc.), to perform tasks they may find difficult (cleaning, opening/closing doors, turning on the TV or other devices by voice command), and to remind them of important things to do (feed the dog, take your meds, mail an overdue bill, and so on).

Sure, Blackberry/Bluetooth/laptop aficionados have PCs to remind them of things - but what if you are 80 years old and have trouble lifting or carrying a laptop, let alone installing/using/reading its software and manuals, or reading its screen? I predict the PR will prove much more useful to seniors than the PC, and here's exciting news: we are just on the brink of seeing them migrate from the lab to the living room. Maybe the genius Jetsons butler assistant who does it all will take a couple of years to perfect, but the personal "petdroid" is already here, and senior homes seem to be ideal proving grounds for this brave new PR world. How ironic that these infant machines may find older folks the perfect people to entertain as well as learn from. --Dr. Don Rose


The health benefits of robotic pets

Alexander and Elena Libin from Georgetown University are looking at the possible health benefits of a robotic cat. They believe the pet could assist people living with coronary artery disease, Alzheimer's disease and other ailments.

The robotic cat, first released in 2001 by Omron Corp., is called NeCoRo and is equipped with touch sensors on the body allowing it to automatically respond when stroked or petted. It also has sound sensors in the ears to recognize its own name. The feline can't walk, but can wag its tail, detect movement through an optical sensor, stretch its body, and meow, hiss and purr, depending on its "mood" and any environmental stimulation.

The Libins tested the robotic cat with people living with Alzheimer's disease, sensory disintegration disorder, attention deficit disorder and coronary artery disease. They found that interaction with NeCoRo resulted in greater feelings of interest and enjoyment for these groups. The robot cat may have medical applications beyond positive feelings, for example, by reminding patients to take medication at a certain time.

(original story on ABC News.)

Now, you may ask yourself: if a patient knows a robotic animal is not alive, why is there any feeling of joy at hearing purrs from a non-alive machine? The patient or robopet owner knows that the roboanimal does not feel anything, that it has no real smarts, yet he or she can still experience happy content feelings playing with it, even to the point of improving their health by doing it!

But why?

I believe we are so used to experiencing simulations today, we just "play along", and willingly suspend our disbelief (reinforced by the good feelings we get) - even mentally "filling in the blanks" by ascribing certain properties to the fake animal (feelings, personality, etc.) when we know they are not there. We go along for the ride, much like we do when watching a film, which we all know doesn't really have anyone up there onscreen; in fact, even the motion in "motion picture" is not real, but rather an illusion of vision that lets us EXPERIENCE movement, rather than the succession of still images a film actually is. With movies, as with robots, we can suspend disbelief and accept "artificial reality" in order to feel joy, learn things, recall fond memories, and so on.

As you might imagine, seniors aren't the only folks taking to robots. Kids respond quite well to them, too:

Another pet robot used in healthcare is Paro, which in 2002 was awarded by the Guinness Book of Records the title of "most therapeutic robot in the world." The seal robot, developed by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, was also tested at nursing homes both in Japan and Sweden, with autistic and handicapped children this time. Nurses reported that Paro helped relieve patients' anxiety and improved communication among patients and their caregivers. Surface tactile sensors beneath its fur and whiskers trigger Paro to move and respond to petting: eyes open and close, flippers move. Just holding and stroking the critter has a calming effect.

(original story on CNN.)

The two animaldroids mentioned above can work wonders indeed, but they are still basically toys. On the other (high) end of the synthetic spectrum, several companies are doing serious research into androids -- humanlike robots - as well as very sophisticated robopets. Sony was one of the pioneers; they developed and sold a famous virtual dog droid, called Aibo, which could do some amazing tricks (like sucking thousands of dollars out of your pocket). The next blog post describes how a more human-looking descendant of Aibo - the QRIO android - is able to respond within a group of children, and vice versa. --Dr. Don Rose


Children 'bond with robots'

An experiment started last year by Sony Intelligence Dynamics Laboratories and a nursery school in San Diego is revealing that children can develop emotions toward robots, leading to new commercial possibilities as machines become smarter and friendlier.

"We adults tend to ask children if it is a toy or a human being, but they are free of such established categorization," explains researcher Fumihide Tanaka who has been working on the project with Machine Perception Laboratory. "If intelligent-machine technology is successfully developed, a century later people will see the concept just as commonsense. This is natural as we are living in a different era now."

The children, aged up to 24 months, started spending one hour every day with QRIO in March last year. Tanaka remote-controls the robot from a hidden place for some 80% of the immersion sessions, with the humanoid moving on its own for the rest of the time. Children initially stayed away from the biped but gradually warmed to it, hugging the robot and otherwise showing affection. Researchers found out that when the robot takes part in the children's dance sessions, the toddlers stay in the room for twice as long.

Children consider the robot not a toy or a living human being but "something between the two". "They are adapting themselves to the robot and empathizing with it, although nobody teaches them to do so," Mr Tanaka added.

While QRIO is their playmate, another robot, RUBI, which runs on a wheel with a TV panel in its belly, joined the class in April 2005 as a teaching assistant.

Can QRIO -- which exhibits excellent emulation of human motion (even dancing ability) -- be considered a real being, an intelligent entity, to some degree? Is it really alive? Good question. A better one may be: do kids really care? The best answer, I think, is that QRIO is "alive enough". For kids, that's what matters. I believe this will also be the case for older owners of such robots in the near future. If a robotoy or intellipet or human-size android achieves your goals or increases your well-being (whether it's giving joy and companionship, answering the door and your phone, or reminding you about meds), you will value it, interact more with it, and eventually even bond with it. We have an innate gift (based on our memories of animals and people we've interacted with) to ascribe to nonliving things (like robopets and humanoid robots) the extra qualities they need in order to seem alive to us. To make up for whatever "aliveness" seems lacking, our minds are able and willing to fill the gaps. In short, these machines are not alive until we decide they are. Aliveness is in the eye of the beholder.

For kids, seniors and other age groups, robots seem destined to become more entwined in our lives, as we find ever more uses for them and they improve in functionality and mimicry. Don't be surprised if, somewhere soon, someone's sales slogan is, "Got Bot?" --Dr. Don Rose

This article is based on postings made by Regine on the blog called; the postings are titled "The health benefits of robotic pets" and "Children 'bond with robots'". The article on this page, and the two works it is based on, are covered by a Creative Commons License (version 1.0). SUMMARY OF THE CREATIVE COMMONS ATTRIBUTION LICENSE for this work: Attribution 1.0: You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work; to make derivative works; to make commercial use of the work. Under the following conditions: (1) Attribution -- You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor. For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. Any of these conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder. Your fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above. Please go to the Creative Commons License site to view more information about the Creative Commons license that applies to this work.

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