Nothing Eileen Oldaker tried could calm her mother when she called from the nursing home, disoriented and distressed in what was likely the early stages of dementia. So Oldaker hung up, dialed the nurses’ station and begged them to get Paro.
Paro is a robot modeled after a baby harp seal. It trills and paddles when petted, blinks when the lights go up, opens its eyes at loud noises and yelps when handled roughly or held upside down. Two microprocessors under its artificial white fur adjust its behavior based on information from dozens of hidden sensors that monitor sound, light, temperature and touch. It perks up at the sound of its name, praise and, over time, the words it hears frequently.
“Oh, there’s my baby,” Oldaker’s mother, Millie Lesek, exclaimed that night last winter when a staff member delivered the seal to her. “Here, Paro, come to me.”
“Meeaakk,” it replied, blinking up at her through long lashes.
Janet Walters, the staff member at Vincentian Home in Pittsburgh who recalled the incident, said she asked Lesek if she would watch Paro for a little while: “I need someone to baby-sit,” she told her.
“Don’t rush,” Lesek instructed, stroking Paro’s antiseptic coat in a motion that elicited a wriggle of apparent delight. “He can stay the night.”
After years of effort to coax empathy from circuitry, devices designed to soothe, support and keep us company are venturing out of the laboratory. Paro, its name derived from the first sounds of the words “personal robot,” is one of a handful that take forms that are often odd, still primitive and yet, for at least some early users, strangely compelling.
For those with a hankering for a custom-built companion and $125,000 to spend, a talking robotic head can be modeled on the personality of your choice. It will smile at its own jokes and recognize familiar faces.
Robots guided by some form of artificial intelligence now explore outer space, drop bombs, perform surgery and play soccer.Computers running artificial intelligence software handle customer service callsand beat humans at chess and, maybe, “Jeopardy!”
But building a machine that fills the basic human need for companionship has proven more difficult. Even at its edgiest, artificial intelligence cannot hold up its side of a wide-ranging conversation or, say, tell by an expression when someone is about to cry. Still, the new devices take advantage of the innate soft spot many people have for objects that seem to care — or need someone to care for them.
Their appearances in nursing homes, schools and the occasional living room are adding fuel to science fiction fantasies of machines that people can relate to as well as rely on. And they are adding a personal dimension to a debate over what human responsibilities machines should, and should not, be allowed to undertake.