Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Would you want to devote your life to an animatronic seal? What if you were eighty-five, demented, and relegated to a nursing home? What if the seal, much like a real creature, purred and waggled when you held it?

You could argue that journalism is at its best when it not only answers questions, but formulates them. And damned if I would have come up with the above questions on my own. Kudos, then, to the ever-disquisitive NYT, which gave pride of place above the fold Monday to an article on Paro, a $6,000 robotic pet designed by Japanese scientists.

Paro, whose name is a gloss of "personal robot," is a fluffy, white, sensor-crammed seal (you'd think folks smart enough to program a robot for daily use would be smart enough not to make that robot white, but never mind). Paro is currently being pioneered as a therapeutic tool for elderly nursing home patients. Per annecdotal report, Paro jolts the unresponsive, soothes the agitated, and brightens the dull. Elderly individuals, with and without mental impairment, develop relationships with Paro, caring for him and speaking to him as if he were real.

'"Oh, there's my baby," an old woman greets the seal. "Paro, come to me."'

I'm not sure what to make of all this. On the one hand, what's not to like about something that brings warmth and pleasure to people who are suffering? Paro will likely soon be shown to have health benefits similar to the health benefits enjoyed by the owners of real pets. What difference does it make, then, whether a fluffy pet's responses are programmed by scientists or by evolution? Does it matter whether our relationships are two-way streets so long as we feel as if they are?

On the other hand, there's something creepy about substituting a connection to a machine for a connection to something that lives, breathes, and cogitates. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, hints that Paro is the both the tip of the iceberg and a signifier of the low regard in which the elderly in general, and the demented in particular, are held:

'“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?”'

By nature, Paro is a con artist, designed to elicit the benefits of human and animal relationships without any of the concomitant mess or work. Even if Paro doesn't fool you consciously, it fools you nevertheless, tapping into evolutionary drives so deeply instantiated they are beyond our control.

Says Clifford Nass, a Standford computer science professor: ”When something responds to us, we are built for our emotions to trigger, even when we are 110 percent certain that it is not human...which brings up the ethical question: Should you meet the needs of people with something that basically suckers them?”

10 years and several notches more moralistic ago, I would have said no. No, hell no, absolutely not, no. And, truthfully, Paro still makes me a little queasy. But here's the thing: We're already suckering ourselves right and left. What is advertising if not a series of smart, ever-more-accurate stabs at our deepest drives? We've already harnessed self-deception, and we've done it in the name of selling Frosted Mini Wheats, SUVs, Glade Plugs Ins, and Silly Bandz.

Why the heck wouldn't we use it to comfort the afflicted?

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