In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks' character, stranded on an island with no human companionship, dresses up a volleyball to look vaguely like a person's head, gives it a name ("Wilson"), then spends years having conversations with it. Near the end of the film, as Hanks is making his desperate attempt to return to civilization on a raft, Wilson gets washed overboard. There's a poignant moment when Hanks tries to reach Wilson, who is drifting away from the raft, then realizes sadly that he'll have to let it go if he's going to save himself. Because no matter how much emotion he's invested it with, in the end it's just a volleyball.
Here in the actual world, there are lots of people who go through their days lacking companionship, many of whom live in nursing homes. As the Baby Boom generation ages, there are going to be a lot more of them. Which naturally leads to the question: Can we use robots to make their lives a little less miserable? Slate's Future Tense brings us the not-really-surprising (at least to me) results of a small pilot study where a group of nursing home residents were each given a Paro robot, which is a baby harp seal stuffed animal that has some sensors and actuators and responds to your touch. Here's what happened:
Using clinical dementia measurements, the researchers determined the impact the robots had on the test group's behavior. They measured "tendency to wander, level of apathy, levels of depression, and anxiety ratings." (Another group was given the same evaluation after a reading group to make sure the results weren't just indicative of any old stimulation.) In the end, they found the robots to produce "a positive, clinically meaningful influence on quality of life, increased levels of pleasure and also reduced displays of anxiety."
As important as actual human contact is for us, it turns out we don't have trouble forging real, even profound relationships with beings that have far from our own level of cognitive and emotional sophistication. Everybody talks to their pets as though those pets understand much more of our words than they do. If you're feeling bad, you can get a lot of succor from your dog, regardless of whether the dog actually understands what you're feeling. It's enough that he puts his head in your lap and lets you pet him. It's true that something like a Paro is capable of a far narrower range of interaction than your dog, but that's only because the technology at the moment is rather primitive, compared with what it will be in a decade or two. Also, you don't have to take it outside and pick up its crap with a plastic bag.
Do you find the idea of getting a robot companion when you check into Shady Acres a little unsettling? It shouldn't, because the choice isn't between Bernice in room 248 having a robot stuffed animal, and Bernice's children and grandchildren visiting every day. It's between the robot and nothing, or if not nothing, at least a rather limited and probably emotionally unsatisfying degree of connection with other people. With the overworked staff at the nursing home incapable of devoting large amounts of time every day to each resident, robots could provide dramatic improvements in well-being, particularly as they get more sophisticated and can not only coo at you when you pet them, but also do things like make you a margarita, clean up around the apartment, and give you a sponge bath. If you can just hold off on getting checked in to the home for a couple of decades, maybe it won't be so bad.