A cuddly robot comforts elderly, predicts future


July 7, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Paro, the robot baby harp seal, coos, recognizes her name, opens her eyes when talked to, squeals when held upside-down or treated roughly.
Paro — and all of her sisters — were “born” in Japan and have been sold at $125,000 a copy to nursing homes worldwide where they become boon companions to elderly patients suffering from dementia.
The name comes from the first sounds of the words “personal robot.”
Their artificial white fur is antiseptic, so a robot may be used to comfort and accompany a number of patients by turn. Because they respond to stroking and speech as if they were alive, they give comfort and fend off loneliness.
But the demented elderly are not the only ones benefiting from the ever-longer strides being taken by this branch of technology.
For dieters, a New York Times story reports, a 15-inch robot “with a touch-screen belly, big eyes and a female voice sits on the kitchen counter and offers encouragement after calculating calories and exercise completed.”
If the dieter confesses to eating too much or exercising too little, the robot proposes more walking and less food the following day. The specific instructions delivered by a “friend,” however artificial, works. Users report steady weight loss — perhaps because they are determined to get their money’s worth.
Robots become more and more “intelligent” as the technology improves. The U.S. military uses them to drop bombs, NASA uses them to explore the surface of planets too hot, cold or toxic or too distant for astronauts to visit. And, as everyone with a telephone has been learning to their irritation, computers now are handling customer service calls.
Skeptics look askance at Paro, wondering if the furry fake won’t be used to cut back on staff and deny the elderly human care. They see a brave new world peopled by un-people.
But today’s population, particularly in the rich world, marches toward senility ever more accustomed to dependence on electronic company. The young — an age group continually adding years to its definition —  go about plugged into nonstop music, talk radio, NPR or, perhaps, a book on tape, barely aware of their surroundings or other people.
At home, they unplug and then re-plug into the television, or radio, CD or DVD.
When the time comes to  receive their last electronic ministrations in a different setting, Paro will be even more sophisticated; even more expected; even more welcome.

Emerson Lynn, jr.

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