Robots are now filling roles traditionally played by pets, friends, and family. Have you seen the reaction people have to objects like Sony’s Aibo (puppy), Ugobe’s Pleo (baby dinosaur), or Japan’s Paro (baby seal)? Young and old (humans) adore these things, or, perhaps more aptly put: they adore the way these creatures help them feel.
Two years ago, The Boston Globe ran this headline: Elders finding love in a household machine--seemingly sentient robots can fill void, researchers say. Full Story.
This isn’t an entirely modern phenomenon. After all, we’ve been placing sentimental value on non-living objects for a long time. Some objects are even considered sacred. In those cases, the object's emotional value springs from our own knowledge or memories.
Today, animated objects are bringing more to the table: the ability to be active participants in new experiences and to provoke our most cherished emotions. What does this tell us? Maybe our feelings are more important to us than what triggers those feelings. In other words, what’s meaningful isn’t an interaction with a living being; it’s that we feel delighted, surprised, needed, or loved.
Another way to look at this: an interaction with a robot is actually an exchange with another person or group of people--the creator(s) of the object. That interaction is simply facilitated by technology.
Some in this field are taking themselves a bit too seriously. One manufacturer, Ugobe, is making the case that their product is actually alive. The website for Pleo describes the range of emotions the robotic dinosaur displays: happy & curious, playful & lively, scared & surprised, and sad & vexed. From Ugobe's website:
Sad and Vexed
Leave a sociable Pleo alone too long or interrupt a game of tug-of-war and Pleo may become sad. How can you tell? That pleading call and forlorn look let you know that he's looking for a friendly pat or another chance to grab his favorite toy.
A forlorn look on its own seldom works for me these days, but with a some soft music and the right lighting Pleo may have more luck... But seriously, before dismissing this "it's alive!" talk as mere cheekiness, check out the tone of Ugobe’s “Three Laws” video and tell me if you think they're kidding.
The crowd around the Pleo booth at a recent Maker Faire was so deep I could barely glimpse one. Well, at least Three Laws will be easier to remember than Ten Commandments, right?
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The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology Kimura Clinic, and Brain Functions Laboratory, participated in joint research involving Paro, a therapeutic seal robot, and patients with Alzheimer's disease and other cognition disorders to discover the effect of the robot on improving brain function (2005). Read all about it.
Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy (non-fiction, 2007). Publisher's Weekly wrote: In this wide-ranging examination of the emotional and physical relations between humans and the inanimate objects of their desire, Levy first addresses the question of love with robots, and moves on to consider the mechanics of actually having sex with them.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick (fiction, 1968).
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (fiction, 1950).
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Robots Dancing Like People
People Dancing Like Robots
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. What does it mean when we program robots to act like us and then we act like them?