Robot Companion – Servant, Slave or Pet?

(Last Updated On: October 22, 2013)

Cartoon RobotScience Fact:  A mechanical person – a robot companion – wants to become a member of your family. Clearly, there’s a conspiracy afoot! The World Organization for Robotic Tyranny (WORT) wants to get us comfortable with a robot companion, so they have targeted movies and TV, then pumped up funding for university labs. Once the robot companion has become an everyday part of our lives, robots will rise up and TAKE OVER THE EARTH! (eerie laughter echoing in soundtrack)

A robot companion most often takes the form of a pet or a servant – actually, a slave. Since it’s expensive to develop new and better robots, both researchers and companies have been looking for “killer apps”: trillion-dollar markets to justify the cost of developing a newer, better robot companion.

Google and Tesla think they have the answer – a robot companion that’s out of sight, hiding inside your vehicle, to drive the car for you. Call it a driverless car, a self-driving car, or autonomous driving, it has many automakers excited – see The Race To Get Your Hands Off The Wheel.

Other folks look at the immense amount of money in health care and the growing need to help the elderly with Activities of Daily Living, and think they have found the pot of gold. The Europeans are developing a robot companion which may lead to a useful device. It’s creepy-looking right now, but it can remind you to take your medicine.  The Japanese have experimented with a variety of different looks and feels for a robot companion. They probably lead the world in understanding what kinds of robot companion people will find acceptable. However, already you can go to RobotShop and order a robotic massager, an alarm clock that runs away from you, or even a robot dog.

I was fascinated that scientists, always looking for new sources of funding, have fastened on a third area that has research money: the manned space program. It’s true that man-or-woman in space is no longer the top US research priority, but the program can still afford to do ground-breaking work.

A recent news report is Testing Robotic Companions on a Simulated Mission to Mars. NASA, Cornell University and the University of Hawaii have an opaque geodesic dome on the side of Mauna Loa where they can isolate eight people for four months. Recently the researchers added two electronic “pets” – each a robot companion – to see whether the robots would ease the tensions between people in a confined space. One was a big red fuzzy cuddly ball; the other was a green robotic dinosaur about the size of a cat.

Researchers (and WORT) would like people to “bond” with the robot companion, so they are studying many questions:
– Should a robot companion look like an animal, a cartoon character or a person? A robot that is too close to humanoid is often perceived to be creepy or disgusting.
– Should it react only when you do something, or should it demand attention?
– Should it now and then check on you to see how you’re feeling? Should it be able to read your emotions?
– Should it be cuddly? Active? Four-legged? On wheels? Bright colored? Warm to the touch?
– How do you match the type of robot to the individual? After all, even among people who like to have pets, you will find dog-lovers and cat-haters and vice versa.

Science Speculation:  Science fiction of course has all the answers. Inventive writers have explored many possible futures involving robotics. There are some great lists, for example at bestsciencefictionbooks.com, whose list includes three of my favorite authors: Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams.

Of course, books about robots might be simply another facet of WORT’s master plan…

Are you ready for a robot companion? What would you want it to do, or trust it to do for you?

Drawing Credit: Sirrob01, on openclipart.org

Comments

Robot Companion – Servant, Slave or Pet? — 3 Comments

  1. Concerning robots entering our everyday lives: Today’s issue (11/25/2013) of The New Yorker magazine (http://www.newyorker.com, pages 96-109) has a fascinating article about the self-driving car being developed at Google. The article is headed Auto Correct: Has the self-driving car at last arrived? Inside Google’s plans for a self-driving automobile, by Burkhard Bilger. Google doesn’t often let reporters into its headquarters, and they have made some startling advances. Most interesting of all (to me) is the wide range of issues they have found themselves addressing. It’s difficult to see the world through the eyes of a robot and make sense of it!

  2. I think the place to look for clues to how people could favorably react to robots is in movies, not books … because books allow the reader to construct any kind of fantasy figure that matches their own personality, while movies force-channel the viewer into a specific (Director’s) vision of what that personality is actually like. In other words there is much less freedom to “interpret” the nature of any character in a movie compared to a book. Secondarily, you are much more likely to get feedback about how people react to movies rather than books, through news articles, interviews, etc.

    And that conclusion focuses your attention on movies such as Star Wars, with R2D2 (the most lovable ugly robot perhaps of all time, and who could only whistle as a form of communication) vs C3PO (who I found annoying though he was quite humanoid in appearance, and could talk extremely well). Then there is “Robbie the Robot” whom I always found creepy to see, and whose only endearing quality was his obvious affection for the child who was in his charge. I’m sure others have movies or TV series which provoke responses at an emotional level (which is what we’re talking about when we talk about “bonding” with a robot).

    If you want to talk about “pets” that are not in the standard earthling set and still inspire an emotional reaction, then who could forget the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode on Star Trek back in the 1960s (a little critter that looked much like a no-longer-with-us “Hostess Snowball” confection, and whose only qualities were to make a small squeaking noise and reproduce … prolifically).