Major ooh and coo time on the front page of the NYT this morning: a baby seal robot used as therapy for patients with dementia.
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,” Millie Lesek exclaimed one 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.
Or is that “Eeeek”? I’ve been known to cuddle furry non-human things for comfort, especially when under stress — my cat, for instance, who is live, and a peculiarly mud-colored toy frog that (I almost wrote ‘who’) once accompanied me into minor surgery, which I refused to undergo without it clutched to my chest. But I was oddly discomforted by this baby-seal report. I don’t know if it was the cuteness factor, or unease at the deception involved in robotic objects being taken for live ones. So as soon as they woke up, I showed it to friends visiting from California and asked what they thought. Rather a tall order before coffee, true, but hey, you take your chances staying with me.
He, a script-writer and psychotherapist working as a grief counselor, hated the idea. “It reinforces the infantilization of those already considered infantile,” he says. “It condescends to them and demeans their humanity.” She, a social worker and psychotherapist working as a public health official, disagreed: “It could be wonderful. Those who are supposed to be caring for people with dementia don’t have the time to give them the attention they need, so what’s wrong with a form of relationship that can bring great comfort?”
I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Can technology take the place of people? Should it? What do you think? I can’t offer coffee and bagels online, but feel free nevertheless to weigh in.