• "Socially Assistive" Robots: New Care Givers?
  • April 1, 2009
  • Law Firm: Holland & Hart LLP - Denver Office
  • On March 10, the Washington Post ran a stimulating piece by Anita Slomski “I’m here to Make You Feel Better,”  about the development of interactive robots that have the potential to assist in the care of patients afflicted with autism, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s and other conditions that require a caretaker or a companion. Ms. Slomski’s article appeared earlier under the title of the “Sociable Robot” in the Winter, 2009 edition of Proto, a publication of Massachusetts General Hospital. Ms Slomski underscores that people become attached to robotic personalities. Consider the people who worry that when they send in their Roombas, a robotic vacuum cleaner, in for repair, they might not get their original back.  They have become attached to a particular vacuum personality. I for one have tried to disassociate myself from our vacuum cleaner for just that reason. Helps maintain the old objectivity you know.

    Studies have indicated that autistic children have become more interactive with robotic companions even to the extent of interacting more with humans when a comfortable robot is also in the room.  The term “socially assistive” is the product of Maja J. Mataric’, director of the Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems at the University of Southern California. Ms. Mataric has written widely about the socially interactive capabilities of robots and the psychological aspects of the interactions. The interaction on a psychological level, let alone a technical level is complex. She has described a “new paradox” wherein the goal of retaining user engagement can conflict with the health/training/educational goals. A robot should have some personality, but not too much.

    Personality types must be appropriately matched.  Introverts to introverts and extroverts to extraverts.  Cross matching doesn’t work very well. The more human-like the robot, the more that is expected of it like Data on Star Trek (“0.68 seconds sir? For an android that is nearly an eternity.”) On the other hand the less threatening and more cartoon like the robot is, the more comfortable human’s are around it. (R2D2 in Star Wars?  Number 5 aka Johnny 5 in Short Circuit?)  Compare those machines with C3-PO in Star Wars which Cracked.com refers to as a cross between Frasier Crane and a transvestite show girl. Probably not a good match for most folks.  Most people, male and female view robots as male unless they actually look like females.  A robot with a girly voice should look girly. Prerecorded human voices seem to work better than synthetic voices.

    There are probably very few things that robots will not ultimately be able to do.  Remember the conversation between the detective and Sonny in I-Robot?

    Detective. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?

    Sonny:  Can You?

    Will a robot be able to eventually practice medicine?  Probably. Some level of practice is already possible. Witness dialysis machines that can monitor blood chemistry of a patient and automatically prescribe and administer medical supplements. It won’t be long before robots with AI capability will be providing everything from massage therapy to differential diagnosis. The law too will have to adapt to the changing technology. Liability standard and processes will change and lots of practical and ethical questions will arise. (“What if it [Number 5 aka Johnny 5] goes out and melts a bus load of nuns?” How would you like to write a headline on that one?” Short Circuit.