IMDB for the whole world

A robot for your mom

Back when I was at MIT, I took an amazing class with Sherry Turkle in which she discussed her ongoing work studying how people relate to seemingly-intelligent machines. She was particularly interested in the booming trend in Japan of children giving robots to their elderly parents. The robots theoretically serve a medical role — they can continuously monitor things like blood pressure or breathing patterns, and alert a doctor if something goes awry. But what really freaked Sherry out was that the robots were also posed as an emotional support. Since the children couldn’t be bothered to hang out with their near-death parents, they’d give ‘em a robot to talk to instead.

I used to think the emotional-robots-for-the-eldery trend was just a flash in the pan, but it shows no sign of diminishing. Today, toy giant Tomy releases a new line of “Yumel” dolls that have 1,200 built-in phrases, and are billed as a “healing partner” for dear old dad or mom. As the AFP reports:

The doll can be programmed to “sleep” or “wake up” in accordance with the owner’s pattern, saying “good morning” with open eyes at due time or inviting the elderly to sleep with the doll’s eyelids drooping.

“I feel so good, g-o-o-d n-i-g-h-t,” the doll says before falling asleep if the owner pats it on the chest gently.

Or Yumel may ask, “Aren’t you pushing yourself too hard?” when it judges the owner has been going to bed too irregularly or not spending enough time playing with it.

“If you lead an orderly life, Yumel will be in a good mood, singing songs or pleading with you to do something like buying him toys,” Kiriseko said.

This latter quality — pleading for assistance — is a relatively new development in robotics, and, as Sherry has written, it’s the most powerful way for a robot to forge a strong emotional attachment with someone. We used to think that robots would be omnipotent and powerful; indeed, as last year’s I, Robot evidenced, our biggest pop-culture fear is that our icy, perfect robots will simply out-evolve us and leave us behind. That fear is partly correct, of course; just ask anyone whose job has been given to a relatively error-free robot.

But the reverse is happening, too: We’re creating a generation of robots that demand to be taken care of — because as it turns out, what we as humans most need is to be needed. This is what the toy-makers realize: If you’re an 80-year-old Japanese woman who’s been effectively abandoned by her kids, maybe what you crave more than anything else is not necesarily attention, but someone who wants you to take care of them.

(Thanks to Ian for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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