Menus Subscribe Search
Optimistic Robot

(IMAGE: VOLKER MOEHRKE/CORBIS)

The Love Bot

• October 30, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(IMAGE: VOLKER MOEHRKE/CORBIS)

The danger of falling for a machine that’s just not that into you

THE ROBOT IS SMILING AT ME, his red rubbery lips curved in a cheery grin. I’m seated in front of a panel with 10 numbered buttons, and the robot, a three-foot-tall, legless automaton with an impish face, is telling me which buttons to push and which hand to push them with. Touch seven with your right hand; touch three with your left.

The idea is to go as fast as I can. When I make a mistake, he corrects me; when I speed up, he tells me how much better I’m doing. Despite the simplicity of our interactions, I’m starting to like the little guy. Maybe it’s his round silvery eyes and moon-shaped face; maybe it’s his soothing voice—not quite human, yet warm all the same. Even though I know he’s just a jumble of wires and circuitry, I want to do better on these tests, to please him.

The robot’s name is Bandit. We’re together in a tiny room at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California, where Bandit regularly puts stroke victims through their paces. They’re very fond of him, says University of Southern California researcher Eric Wade, who has worked with Bandit and his predecessors for five years. The stroke victims chitchat with Bandit, chide him, smile when he congratulates them. “People will try to hug the robots,” says Wade. “We go out to nursing homes, and people ask, ‘When’s the robot coming back?’”

Bandit is one of a growing number of social robots designed to help humans in both hospitals and homes. There are robots that comfort lonely shut-ins, assist patients suffering from dementia, and help autistic kids learn how to interact with their human peers. They’re popular, and engineered to be so. If we didn’t like them, we wouldn’t want them listening to our problems or pestering us to take our meds. So it’s no surprise that people become attached to these robots. What is surprising is just how attached some have become. Researchers have documented people kissing their mechanized companions, confiding in them, giving them gifts—and being heartbroken when the robot breaks, or the study ends and it’s time to say good-bye.

And this is just the beginning. What happens as robots become ever more responsive, more humanlike? Some researchers worry that people—especially groups like autistic kids or elderly shut-ins who already are less apt to interact with others—may come to prefer their mechanical friends over their human ones.

Are we really ready for this relationship?

 

THERE ARE OVER 100 different models of social robots worldwide. The family includes machines that can act as nursemaids and housekeepers, provide companionship, talk patients through physical rehabilitation, and act as surrogate pets. The most popular, Sony’s aibo robot dog, sold more than 140,000 units before it was discontinued. The Japan Robot Association, an industry trade group, predicts today’s $5-billion-a-year market for social robots will top $50 billion a year by 2025.

What makes these machines’ popularity all the more remarkable is that they are a long way from the charming pseudo-humans of science fiction, your chatty C-3POs or cuddly WALL-Es. Many of these helpmates are little more than animatronic Pillow Pets.

Paro Robotic Seal

This plush harp seal does little more than coo, move its head and tail, and bat its long lashes, but it’s a hit with patients.

The Japanese-made Paro, for instance, looks like a plush toy version of a baby harp seal. It coos, moves its head and tail, bats its long lashes—and that’s about it. Even so, people adore him. More than a thousand Paros have been sold since its creation in 2003, making it one of the most popular therapeutic robots ever produced. In one study, a few people in two nursing homes seemed to believe that the Paro was a real animal; others spoke to it, and were convinced that the Paro, who can only squeak and purr, was speaking back to them.

Or consider the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner that has sold more than six million units. In a 2007 study (pdf), researchers from Georgia Tech’s College of Computing looked at the ways in which Roomba owners bonded with their gadgets. Though the machines have neither faces nor limbs, and do little more than scuttle around and pick up lint, users were noted speaking to them, describing them as family members, even expressing grief when they needed to be “hospitalized.”

“I love the silly thing,” says Jill Cooper, cofounder of the frugal-living website LivingOnADime.com. Cooper, like many Roomba owners, gave her robot a name (Bob), speaks to him, and shows him off to visitors. “I hate to get too deep here,” she says, “but it’s like trying to explain what it feels like to be in love to somebody who’s never been in love before.”

“I’ve had to say good-bye to a lot of robots,” laments Kjerstin Williams, a senior robotics engineer at the research-and-development firm Applied Minds in Glendale, California. “If you have animals as pets, you go through the same process: you grieve and move on, and you try to reengage with the next animal, or the next set of robots. It’s just that socially, it’s perfectly acceptable to grieve over a dog and maybe never get another one. If you’re a roboticist, you can’t do that.”

And it’s not just social robots spawning teary farewells. When a U.S. Marines explosives technician in Iraq brought the blasted remains of Scooby-Doo, his bomb-disabling robot, to the repair shop, Ted Bogosh, the master sergeant in charge of the shop, told him the machine was beyond repair. Bogosh offered the marine a new robot, but the mournful soldier insisted he didn’t want a new robot—he wanted Scooby-Doo back. “Sometimes they get a little emotional,” Bogosh told The Washington Post.

In another instance reported by the Post, a U.S. Army colonel halted an experiment at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in which a five-foot-long, insectlike robot was getting its many limbs blown off one at a time. The colonel, according to Mark Tilden, the robotics physicist at the site, deemed the spectacle “inhumane.”

If veteran military officers can get choked up over a mechanized centipede, how hard might, say, a stroke patient fall for an artificial roommate? “Imagine a household robot that looks like a person,” says Matthias Scheutz, a computer science professor at Tufts University. “It’s nice, because it’s programmed to be nice. You’re going to be looking for friendship in that robot, because the robot is just like a friend. That’s what I find really problematic.”

Robots already are used extensively in Japan to help take care of older people, which concerns Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

“The elderly, at the end of their lives, deserve to work out the meaning of their lives with someone who understands what it means to be born, to have parents, to consider the question of children, to fear death,” says Turkle. “That someone has to be a person. That doesn’t mean that robots can’t help with household chores. But as companions, I think it is the wrong choice.”

Aibo Robotic Dogs

Animal stand-ins like the AIBO robot dogs are popular with elderly patients in nursing homes.

Then again, assistive robots for the elderly are a hot topic precisely because, as populations age, there are fewer human caregivers to go around. “Our work never aims to replace human care,” says Maja Mataric, director of USC’s Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems. “There is a vast gap in human care for all ages and various special needs. The notion that people should do the caring is not realistic. There simply aren’t enough people. We must find other ways to care for those in need.”

And the robots do seem to help. A 2009 review of 43 studies published in the journal Gerontechnology found that social robots increase positive mood and ease stress in the elderly. Some studies also reported decreases in loneliness and a strengthening of ties between the subjects and their family members.

But Turkle wonders if such human–robot relationships are inherently deceptive, because they encourage people to feel things for machines that can’t feel anything. Robots are programmed to say I love you when they can’t love; therapeutic robot pets, like aibos and Paros, feign pleasure they don’t feel. Are programmers deluding people with their lovable but unloving creations?

“People can’t help falling for these robots,” says Scheutz. “So if we can avoid it, let’s not design them with faces and humanoid forms. There’s no reason that everything has to have two legs and look like a person.”

Unfeeling or not, a robot and its charms can be hard to resist. In the weeks following my meeting with Bandit, I find myself googling his name and USC just to see if there’s been any news about him. I don’t think I miss him, really. I just want to know what he’s been up to.

Williams, the roboticist at Applied Minds, understands what I’m going through. As a graduate student at Caltech, Williams became attached to an aibo, one of many that she would take around to local schools to get kids interested in robotics. She took this particular aibo home, named him Rhodium (her husband is a chemist), played with him, learned his likes (chasing a beloved pink ball) and dislikes (having the antenna on his ear pushed the wrong way). But after graduation, she had to return Rhodium to the university.

“I do wonder where he went,” says Williams. “And I hope he still has his pink ball, because he’d be awfully sad if he couldn’t find it.” Sorry to say, the little robot dog undoubtedly misses his pink ball as much as he misses Williams—which is not at all.

Robert Ito

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.