Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I, therapist

In Japan robots are being used to act as therapists to the elderly. Artificial seal pups open their eyes and respond like large 3D versions of those virtual pets that were so popular ten years ago. On the BBC website I saw footage of old people talking and stroking these robotic soft toys as tenderly as if they were petting a beloved animal then grinning and nodding as the plastic lids of the glassy eyes opened appealingly in response.

Do these old people know what is happening? Do they realise they are being fooled into thinking that some animal cares about them, that some real messy organic brain (not some tidy small box of silicon chips) appreciates their pats and their coos?

There is something depressing about this. The cheery assertion by the commentator that these imitators of emotion will some day replace humans I found particularly chilling. I remember reading a book by Asimov as a teenager: I, ROBOT. There had to be a primary law when robots were introduced into society, Asimov said, something about not usurping or harming people.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could deal with an artificial seal pup that functioned as a snow blower and then came for a pat afterward--or not, just so she cleaned the walks and drive! 22 inches predicted for tonight and tomorrow.

It's all part of our continual replacement of reality with someting easier, tidier, and more expensive. I hope they were smiling at the joke of the thing, but perhaps not. At our local 'home,' a great tawny dog wanders the rooms, and a snooty yellow cat.

As a great deal of snow sometimes means very little electricity, I'll wish you a happy St. Val's today. (Card elsewhere!)

Tue Feb 13, 02:12:00 pm  
Blogger Zen of Writing said...

It reminds me of American author and designer of livestock restraints, Temple Grandin. She designed a "hug machine" for herself based on the cattle restraint used in the killing chute. Grandin is high-functioning autistic, and has been lauded for the "kindness" of her designs.

It seems as if the physical simulation of an experience can be enough for the abnormal brain. It is deeply weird to me, but if it makes people feel better, it's preferable to drugs or suffering.

I could only see owning such a "pet" as a gag. My dog would probably love one, however.

Tue Feb 13, 04:52:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Marly, hope I've caught you in time - 22 inches of snow sounds a heck of a lot to me. Good luck.

And I think I'd much prefer a great tawny dog - but I'd probably wheeze if the snooty yellow cat came near. One thing about robots, I suppose - they're unlikely to set of an allergy.

The Zen of writing! Now that is an excellent name. And very interesting what you say - I'm pretty sure I've seen footage of Temple Grandin - she seems to be a talented and etraordinary woman.

It seems to be a strange feature of primates that we need to feel the warmth and contact of another. I remember at school we were shown monkeys that would go to the artifical furry mother even if their food was elsewhere - a basic instinct.

Yes, I agree that despite the weirdness it is much better for these elderly (who I guess might be suffering from some form of dementia) to have something artificial to love rather than drugs or suffering. I take your point. I don't think it was intended as a gag though.

Tue Feb 13, 07:25:00 pm  
Blogger Tammy Brierly said...

This was very scary and sad.

Tue Feb 13, 10:06:00 pm  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

Hope the research is going well and you get a deserved treat somewhere along the way soon! Yes I agree - the idea of old people petting 'cute' robots believing they're the real thing, is rather chilling.

Wed Feb 14, 01:54:00 am  
Blogger Jonathan Wonham said...

Do you remember the robots in Star Wars: C3PO and R2D2? It strikes me as quite interesting that the more likeable of the two was the one with less human qualities...

Wed Feb 14, 11:55:00 pm  
Blogger Anne S said...

I have softness for robots. I've probably read too much Science Fiction and the way they are depicted therein has probably given me a romantic outlook on them.

One striking case is the novel "City" by Clifford D Simak which has a wonderful old robot called Jenkins looking after the new intelligent dogs that have taken over from man when human kind becomes redundant. It's an old fashioned SF novel, but one of my favourites.

Thu Feb 15, 10:20:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jonathan: Yes, that's true - the less human was more endearing - rather like an animal in fact - perhaps that is why - we felt less threatened.

Anne S: Ha, Jenkins used to be my name - and frequently the name of a servant for some reason. Actually, thinking about it - a name ending in kins is often used for a servant- Perkins, Dawkins, Atkins...

Hope it didn't make you feel too sad, Tammy!

And thanks CB.

Fri Feb 16, 09:02:00 am  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Sorry to hear about your sabbatical from blogging, Clare. Are you sure you won't welcome the variety which blogging provides?

Now, is an organic brain really messy? It looks messy, but that's only because human perception only resolves detail on certain length scales. If you look at the function of an animal brain on molecular length scales, does it not transform into a precise, mechanical system?

And even if it is messy in some sense, why does organic messiness make something a more appropriate recipient of our cares and concerns than a non-messy system?

A theory of the metaphysics and morals of messy systems is called for!

Sat Feb 17, 03:02:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hi Gordon: no the blogging was taking hours. I did love it but I have a lot to do in the real world just at the moment. There is enough variety there!

I think the animal brain is more messy than silicon brains because they have been designed by evolution and consequently contain much that is superfluous and unused. Therefore it is not efficient. Futhermore it is influenced by emotion. Its thought processes are erratic and not reproducible. No one knows how it works. No one knows what consciousness or the mind really is. Also it is a jelly and dependent on being fed and oxygenated in a much less robust system than a robot's. All of this adds up to much mess. I know a robot can be made to think in something that resembles something alive - say in solving problems - but really it is a poor imitation because it is quite limited.

No, the animal brain is messy in all sorts of way- gloriously so. It is unpredictable. It can create and invent and it can express emotion. It is sincere in its messiness and that for me is its attraction.

Sat Feb 17, 03:26:00 pm  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Sat Feb 17, 06:49:00 pm  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Some good points, Clare. I don't have strong opinions on this, but here are some possible responses:

Won't an animal brain be far more efficient precisely because it has been designed by evolution? Anything wasteful might compromise the prospects of survival and reproduction, and would therefore be weeded out by natural selection, unless it were a by-product of something more congenial to survival.

The animal brain is certainly more complex than the silicon brains we have so far produced, and this makes them less predictable. But there's no reason why silicon brains couldn't ultimately have emotions, and also be unpredictable. At a molecular level, emotions are just biochemical systems for triggering certains types of behaviour. Robots which operate according to a fixed program are certainly predictable, but robots which have a self-modifying program, and which learn from experience in the manner of neural networks, could be most unpredictable.

Sat Feb 17, 07:48:00 pm  

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