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Commentary: Robotic companionship

It may sound like a good idea, but I still don’t like it. They’ve created a robot by the name of Nadine that scientists hope may some day be used as a potential assistant or care provider for the elderly. Nadia Thalmann is a visiting professor and director of Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University’s Institute of Media Innovation.  She has developed this robot with brown hair, soft skin and an expressive face that has the ability to show a range of emotions, carry on a discussion and remember previous conversations.

Will Nadine be a toy? Not at all.  The professor, who has spent three decades researching into the science of virtual humans, has predicted that the robot could one day be used as a companion for people living with dementia.  She says Nadine could provide conversation, tell a story or play a simple game.  She says "If we leave these people alone, they will be going down very quickly."

They are also working on robots that can play with  children, providing companionship and even supervision.

I guess I’m "old school," but this robotic companionship business sounds spooky to me.  Is it science, science fiction, artificial intelligence or make-believe friendship?  It certainly can’t be disputed that the elderly and those in dementia need interaction. They can’t get it by watching tv or playing solitaire.  But putting myself in the shoes of somebody on that slippery slope -- I can imagine I will have good days and bad days. Isn’t that how it works?  On bad days I will be happy with my virtual companion. On good days, I will realize that my friend is a machine programmed to be nice to me, but doesn’t really care. Will the discovery that I have a facsimile and not a real friend set me back? Will it be as crushing as finding that your lover is really a false-hearted lover? In other words, I’ll probably be happier on bad days than on good days. No thanks.

When my day arrives, don’t send me a wind-up doll with brown hair, soft skin and a soothing voice. Send me a crusty old buddy with gray hair, dry, wrinkled skin and a gruff voice. If all those guys are gone, it will be time for me to shuffle off as well.

When it comes to the robotic care of children, I would agree that little kids need to be attended. Otherwise they’re going to play with matches or fall down stairs. But robotic companionship sounds sterile to me.  Even as toddlers, kids have to experience more than automated kindness. In the real world, as contracted with the virtual world, sometimes kids are naughty to one another. That’s part of the socializing process of growing up. So, until they invent a little kid robot that is naughty once in awhile, we will have kids raised in an artificial sweetness environment, kids who won’t understand the give and take of normal growing up, and once they start school, will never have enough pushback to get to the front of the lunch line. The law of unintended consequences works in the world of robots too.  Be careful what you wish for.