There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the increase in the use of Artificial Intelligence. Uncertainty about its capacity is part of the concerns being expressed by the actors and writers who are on strike in Hollywood.
One of the more interesting ways in how it has been deployed is in the provision of care for the elderly, especially in Japan where many people see robots as a way to fill in for a shortage of workers without paying higher wages, or confronting difficult questions about importing cheap immigrant labour, which successive Japanese governments have tried to curtail. The country has extensive expertise in industrial robotics and led the world for decades in humanoid-robot research.
Individuals over the age of 65 make up more than a quarter of Japan’s total population. By 2065, 40% of the population is estimated to belong to this demographic. It is on this basis that Japan justifies the quick adoption of robots and smart sensors in elderly home care.
The Problem with Paro
Sony has made a robot puppy as well as other “carebo” animals are seen as therapy for loneliness and dementia, “Just looking at it makes people smile, exercising their facial muscles,” said Kenshin Noguchi, Minami Tsukuba’s business promotion manager, referring to Paro, the name of a cute, soft, furry baby seal robot designed by Japan’s Intelligent Systems Research.
Its purpose was to offer a robotic form of animal therapy while also acting as a distraction aid for some people with dementia who made repeated demands of staff throughout the day. Paro can make noises, move its head, and wiggle its tail when users pet and talk to it. At first care workers were quite happy with the robot. However, difficulties soon emerged. One resident kept trying to “skin” Paro by removing its outer layer of synthetic fur, while another developed a very close attachment, refusing to eat meals or go to bed without having it by her side.
Staff ended up having to keep a close eye on Paro’s interactions with residents, and it didn’t seem to reduce the repetitive patterns of those with severe dementia. Instead of conversing and interacting with residents themselves, the staff gave them Pero and monitored the interaction from a distance. Initially, staff loved him because he does not need food, and nobody was allergic to his fur. However, research has shown that visitations from real animals, such as therapy dogs do brighten the days of people in assisted living facilities in ways that robotic pets cannot.
Some people think that technology can provide pets that are just as lovable as real ones; others say that a robot pet will never be able to love a human like a real animal.
One recent robot pet, made by the company Zoetic AI, has proved to be popular It looks like a cat with pointy ears and eyes. It is designed to “understand how you are feeling”. She is marketed as understanding your emotions and growing with you. In short, ‘Kiki Cares’.But does she? A robot might seem similar to a real pet, but it’s no replacement for a living breathing animal, and there are plenty out there who are abused, neglected, and in need of a good home.
Several scientific studies, as well as the behaviour of animals themselves, have shown that pets really do love their owners. There is the famous example of Hachiko, a Japanese Akita dog, who used to wait for his owner every day outside the train station in Tokyo, where they lived. After his owner’s sudden death, when Hachiko had been rehomed, he continued his vigil at the station for many years, eventually passing away himself peacefully on the street. In 2009 Hollywood made a film based on his story, starring Richard Gere.
Robots cannot provide this level of affection or emotion; a bond so deep could never be replicated by anything ‘artificial’. Such pets are not able to feel true, deep love and have just been programmed by their human ‘creators’.
Sometimes the gargantuan strides that have been made in technology can cause us to forget God, the ultimate Creator, for “through Him, all things were made”. In Psalm 148 we are told that all of creation is to praise the Lord, including animals. There is a danger that if we end up forming quasi relationships with robots there will inevitably be a social consequence of reduced engagement with the Natural World.
The AI pets may evolve to be so perfectly designed that they will be nearly impossible to distinguish from a living dog. They might in many ways be the ‘perfect pet, never misbehaving or causing inconvenience but in the final analysis, they won’t be real, and they will certainly never miss you when you go.
Written by Marie–Therese Cryan