ROBOT: human/machine bonding experiment

From: J. R. Molloy (jr@shasta.com)
Date: Sat Nov 03 2001 - 07:53:32 MST


Robot Lovin'
http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/magazine/life/0,8782,182326,00.html
Japan's electronics makers are building artificially intelligent robo-pets for
consumers, but health care workers think the toys have a higher use as
companions for elderly shut-ins

Using interactive toys programmed to behave as obsequiously as the average
lapdog, health care workers are trying to add companionship and emotional
sustenance that may be missing from the lives of hospitalized children and
elderly shut-ins. Researchers hope that one day, armies of sharing, caring
machines will shore up a medical system that is hard-pressed to meet the
demands of a rapidly aging society. Robots might even serve as surrogate
family members, providing contact and affection for patients who have no
immediate relatives nearby.

In Osaka, 74-year-old Tomoko Komiyama has been participating in a year-long
human/machine bonding experiment involving a fuzzy, koala-like device called
Wandakun. The artificial koala two months ago was recalled to the laboratory
so data could be sifted. But if you ask Komiyama, the experiment has been a
success. "When I looked into his large brown eyes, I fell in love after years
of being quite lonely," says the widow, who lives alone. While Wandakun isn't
much more interactive than a shrub it wriggles when petted, sings a bit and
knows a few phrases Komiyama considers it a fine housemate. She snuggled up
with it, talked to it and knitted it sweaters to keep its circuits warm in
winter. "I swore to protect and care for the little animal," she says.

Komiyama gets personal with version 1.0

Perhaps it's not surprising that the Japanese are taking their well-known
fondness for high-tech gadgets to a higher emotional plane. The country has
long been a leader in robotic research; Japanese auto manufacturers pioneered
their use on assembly lines. Several years ago, electronics giants including
Sony and Matsushita Electric Industrial (maker of Wandakun) concluded that
artificially intelligent machines were becoming sophisticated enough for the
general public, as long as they were built to be as cute as house pets. Sony
has sold more than 110,000 of its AIBO (Artificially Intelligent roBOt)
robo-dogs since the model was introduced in limited numbers in 1999. Other
companies have developed A.I. cats, jellyfish and other interactive pets
ranging in price from several hundred dollars to several thousand.

Japanese doctors think the growing mechanical menagerie can be put to
therapeutic use. There is ample research showing that pets improve the
dispositions of long-term patients stroking a purring cat demonstrably
lowers blood pressure, for example. Dr. Akimitsu Yokoyama, a doctor at Yamato
City Hospital near Tokyo, lobbied for years to introduce pets to its
pediatrics ward. Administrators nixed the idea, fearing the animals would
carry infections and trigger allergies.

Yokoyama reasoned that artificial pets might provide some of the benefits of
beasts without the mess. The hospital agreed. Since January, Yokoyama has
presided over weekly play sessions between four AIBOs and young patients at
the hospital. "I was really amazed by what I saw," he says. The ward comes
alive whenever the barking, whining, tail-wagging contraptions are unleashed.
"The children hug and cuddle the robots, and in the process make friends with
each other and laugh and play for hours," says Yokoyama. Patient Daniella
Marie is fond of her favorite AIBO: "She does all kinds of tricks that make me
laugh."

The children readily accept that the toys, which respond to simple voice
commands, are worthy of affection, something that surprised Yokoyama. AIBO's
resemblance to a domesticated animal may be part of the reason. When Yokoyama
brought a 1.2-meter-tall humanoid robot to the ward, the youngsters kept their
distance the metal man apparently looked like he was packing a death ray and
had the inclination to use it. "Children were afraid of the robot because it
looked big and strange," he says. AIBO, on the other hand, looks like a
cartoon dog.

Hello Kitty factor aside, Yokoyama is unwilling to concede robo-pets generate
the same attachment that humans form with fellow vertebrates, which if nothing
else can supply another heartbeat in the room. "Real pets can help relax
patients by just sitting with them," he says. "I don't see the same with
robots." Early research suggests he may be wrong that if it walks like a
duck and quacks like a duck, even adults will respond as if it were a
flesh-and-feathers duck. At Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture, a
two-month trial that ended in July found a marked drop in stress levels among
seniors who interacted with an electronic seal called Paro. Researchers noted
that the elderly test subjects did not face the burden of feeding and tending
a live sea mammal. "What works best for the elderly is something that they
enjoy for about an hour each day," says Takanori Shibata, who heads Tsukuba's
robot therapy unit.

Partly due to their low maintenance, some scientists and health care
professionals see a wider role for robots, especially in long-term care
facilities. Japan's aging society is putting strains on care delivery. By
2020, one in four citizens will be more than 65 years old, compared with 17%
of the country's 127 million residents today. Besides serving as companions
for the elderly, robots may be called upon to augment dwindling numbers of
nurses.

At a new 107-room nursing home being built by Matsushita Electric in Osaka,
human caregivers will be assisted by teddy bears when the facility opens in
December. Equipped with sensors, the bear-bots will not only interact with
residents, they will help the staff monitor their charges, says Kuniichi
Ozawa, director of Matsushita's nursing care network. Each bear will be linked
with nurses' stations so that staff can be alerted if, for example, a patient
does not respond to a robot's electronic greeting. "Robot therapy will be very
important in care of the elderly in Japan," says Ozawa, not least because the
mechanical assistants can reduce labor costs. "It's too expensive to pay
individual nurses to provide round-the-clock care for each resident. But
through robots like Tama (a robot tabby developed by Matsushita), they can
keep an eye on everyone," says Ozawa.

To sci-fi fans, the thought of artificial creatures that follow your every
move is creepily familiar. But skeptics say that robots, no matter how
sophisticated, will never replace people. "It is important to remember that
the best care for the elderly is through human touch, which robots cannot
supply," says Nobuka Sawada, a professor who teaches welfare for the elderly
at Saitama University.

Nevertheless, robots could become part of everyday life in Japan. "Japan
developed a postwar society that worships economic and technological
development," says Yokoyama, the Yamato City Hospital doctor. "Therefore it is
absolutely natural to rely on technology to fill in for the breakdown of
traditional family roles, which accompanies rapid economic growth in our
society."

Robots may even prove to be better than people as confidants, at least in
Japan. "Japanese culture encourages people not to show their emotions to each
other," says Yokoyama. "So it's actually easier for them to express their
emotions to a robot a cold, technological creation." Hey doc, don't diss the
artificial beings. You'll hurt their feelings.

------------------

"You'll learn to like robots. They'll be
nicer than human beings."
--Hans Moravec

Biology is not destiny. It was never more than tendency. It was just nature's
first quick and dirty way to compute with meat. Chips are destiny.
-- Bart Kosko, Ph.D.,



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