Will we really accept robot caregivers?

Author and physician Louise Aronson writes in the New York Times that America needs the kinds of robot caregivers being used in Japan, yet three years ago the BBC reported that the Japanese were actually rejecting robots: “We want humans caring for us, not machines,” said one patient.

Undaunted, in June, Japan’s Softbank began demonstrating Pepper, a glossy white plastic humanoid robot with big black eyes that looks like the love child of Sailor Moon and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Although it is supposed to be able to react to human emotions, the prototype, described in detail by Sam Byford for The Verge, does not do much to reassure us of Dr. Aronson’s thesis.

Paradoxically, while patients are rejecting humanoid robots, they’re embracing an animal one.

Awwwww...

Paro. Awwwww…

The therapeutic robot Paro, which looks like a heartbreakingly cute baby seal, has become a darling of nursing homes. One study showed Paro had more patient interactions than an actual, living dog. It also has the advantages of not triggering allergies or creating “accidents.” Notably, patients talked more about Paro than the dog, so the robot was credited with inspiring social interactions among patients, yet it’s worth questioning if that’s a novelty effect that may diminish.

Perhaps the acceptance of Paro isn’t merely because it’s so damn cute. Maybe there’s a temporal uncanny valley that makes us prefer animal companion robots to humanoid ones: Toy-like furry critters take you back to the familial warmth of childhood, while humanoid machines are nasty reminders of a lonely present.

Indeed, the NIMBY-ish responses in a study from Sweden  suggest that robots will never truly replace the emotional component: “The participants perceived that having a robot might be ‘good for others but not themselves,’…while their relatives and informal caregivers perceived a robot as ‘not for my relative but for other older people’”.