BY BROOKLYN PINHEIRO
The producers of the Jetsons weren’t far off from predicting the 21st century mode of care giving with the character of Rosie the robot maid. Rosie could cook, clean, light cigars, and became a part of the family. While today’s robots might not be as sassy as Rosie, they do have a future in eliciting emotional responses from their users.
In a study, researchers found that responsive robots had effects on the users’ connection and willingness to confide to them. Robots’ responsiveness affected the perception of the robots as being a source of comfort and support.
“Research suggests that people tend to perceive robots as social actors and attribute to them human-like traits, including mental states and personality,” read the study. The experiment consisted of the participant discussing either a positive or negative experience with a robot who would gesture and give written responses controlled by a technician in a hidden room. The participants were then asked to rate factors involving how responsive the robot was and how that affected their perceptions of it. It concluded that the responsiveness of the robot evoked the same type of interactions and response from the participants that would be present in a social setting.
If robots are able to fulfill the social needs of being understood and supported they could have a greater role in care-giving which they are already beginning to be used for.
The mechanical capabilities that robots can have reache into care-giving in many ways. There’s robot vacuums and robots to help lift people or things to more complex tasks such as reminding patients to stay active or take their medication. Socially assistive robots are different because they are categorized by their ability to comfort users and assist in social needs including reducing loneliness.
PARO, the robotic baby sea lion has been used in nursing homes as companions to the elderly. The Japanese invention is a therapeutic tool used to reduce stress and boost moods among the patients. The furry companion reacts to touch and voices and learns to act in ways that its user is most responsive to. The result is the patient creating a real attachment to it as if it were a live animal. It also creates a more social and positive environment for the patients. While there are real benefits, PARO raises the ethical dilemma of whether or not promoting connection between people and inanimate objects is a means to lifting the responsibility from caregivers themselves.
Care-giving can be emotionally and physically exhausting and often falls into the hands of low-paid or free labour workers. Robot caregivers can help alleviate the stress while also providing a support to patients that is incapable of getting frustrated or tired.
Ethicist and philosophy professor Shannon Vallor raises the question: “what happens to us, what happens to our moral character and our virtues in a world where we increasingly have more and more opportunities to transfer our responsibilities for caring for others, to robots?”
In an eerie commercial produced by Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, they illustrate the perceived difficulties of robots assuming the role of caregivers.
They’re promoting the idea that robots are not a suitable replacement to real life caregivers. “We think that only human being[s] can help in fighting loneliness,” reads the final scene.
When Heather Roberts worked in a nursing home she brought in a pair of dolls from her childhood to show some of the residents. The elderly women attached right on to them, caring for them as if they were real children. The dolls weren’t mechanical in any way yet they were still able to provide comfort for residents, and no one sought to break their illusion. This begs the question why ethical concerns are only raised when technology is being designed to provide human like connection rather than it happening without intent.
The study came to the conclusion that people can feel better about themselves from positive reinforcement from robot companions. It can make them feel more confident and promote socialization with other real life people. If utilized in this way this type of technology could potentially benefit caregivers rather than wipe out their need. One only has to watch the faces of the usually quiet patients light up when PARO wiggles back and forth to ask themselves if artificial connection is really so bad.