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Hello, Paro: I for one, welcome our new robot caregiver overlords

The New York Times has a fascinating story today about how robots are increasingly being used for caregiver functions -- "Paro," a robot critter that looks like a baby seal, is used to provide comfort and friendship to the elderly in nursing homes -- and raises an interesting ethical dilemma:
Some social critics see the use of robots with such patients as a sign of the low status of the elderly, especially those with dementia. As the technology improves, argues Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it will only grow more tempting to substitute Paro and its ilk for a family member, friend — or actual pet — in an ever-widening number of situations.

“Paro is the beginning,” she said. “It’s allowing us to say, ‘A robot makes sense in this situation.’ But does it really? And then what? What about a robot that reads to your kid? A robot you tell your troubles to? Who among us will eventually be deserving enough to deserve people?”
What's fascinating about Paro, to me, is that the rise of technology has increasingly made our world less organic -- most of us are, of course, sealed up in air-conditioned bubbles for the vast majority of our lives, cut off from the realm of, well, experience. But as Paro demonstrates, the aim of much technological research is to duplicate (using circuitry) that which already exists in the realm of flesh, blood and bone.

Turkle's question -- who will deserve people? -- raises another. Why not people? Why not pets? Why spend $1,000 on a fake baby seal when there's somebody's grandson who could come in for free?


KhabaLox said…
" most of us are, of course, sealed up in air-conditioned bubbles for the vast majority of our lives, cut off from the realm of, well, experience. "

What? I don't think "experience" is the word you're looking for here. I can live my entire life (or most of it) in an air conditioned bubble and still experience a great deal of life, interacting with people (in the flesh or virtually), objects (e.g. books) and (interior) spaces. Though I do love the outdoors, and I think experiencing them is an important part of a balanced life, I disagree that the "bubble" experience is any less important.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your idea of the "air-conditioned bubble."

The really interesting question this raises is once these robots have a sufficiently advance AI, what's to say that having a conversation with it is less engaging or important than having a conversation with a purely organic life form. If the only difference between two entities is that one is silicon based and the other carbon (and this is indistinguishable to the casual observer), then what is the real difference? Is there one? If you can't tell the robot dog apart from the "real" dog, then is there a difference? These are the questions that make really good SF (e.g. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep").

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