The Pincushion Perspective

When I was a kid, it seemed like every visit to the doctor’s office was an occasion for getting some kind of shot. Mom was a fiend for making sure that her kids had every form of inoculation and immunization known to medical science, and she kept careful track of each one on individualized cards that she took to our appointments.

Smallpox, polio, MMR — all were reason enough for a Webner kid to have to drop drawers and Fruit of the Looms and get stuck in the butt by the needle-wielding family doctor. Often, the shots were accompanied by the kind of brook-no-argument statement that only mothers can plausibly deliver. My favorite bit of motherly injection-rationalizing wisdom came when I got my first tetanus shot: “You don’t want to get bitten by a rabid dog and get lockjaw, do you?” It was phrased as a question, but it clearly wasn’t an honest inquiry that you could answer in the negative. I didn’t know exactly what “lockjaw” was, but it sure sounded bad–and if Mom thought I needed to get the shot to prevent it, that was good enough for me.

Then I reached adulthood, and the frequency of shots abated. I’m sure I received some stabs, but for the most part my 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s seemed to be largely needle-free. But when the calendar told the doctor I had hit 60, the syringe impalements resumed with a childhood-like frequency. Flu shots, multiple COVID shots, and pneumonia shots have all come my way in recent years, and today my doctor–who uses reason rather than the flat assertions of a decisive mother–strongly suggested that I should get another COVID booster, scheduled me for a shingles shot, and told me that when the autumn appointment rolls around it will be time for another tetanus shot, just in case I encounter a rabid coyote or scrape my hand on a rusty nail and need that protection against the dreaded lockjaw.

Somewhere, I am sure that my mother nodded approvingly.

So, I’m back to assuming the pincushion perspective on medical appointments. The only difference, for which I am supremely grateful, is that i have enough muscle tissue in my upper arm to allow the shots to be administered to a less embarrassing location.

Your Future Robot Companion

Loneliness is a problem for many elderly people. Older people who are trying to cope with the loss of a spouse or long-time companion often struggle with health problems that are related to their solitude: the National Institutes of Health reports that studies have shown that isolation among senior citizens, and the resulting lack of regular social interaction, can lead to depression. cognitive decline, and heart disease.

The Washington Post reports that an Israeli company, Intuition Robotics, has now released a product that seeks to address that problem. ElliQ is an artificial intelligence device that looks vaguely like a lava lamp on a stand. It is designed to serve as a companion, rather than an assistant like Siri or Alexa. As the Post describes it, “ElliQ offers soothing encouragement, invitations to games, gentle health prodding, music thoughts and, most important, a friendly voice that learns a person’s ways and comforts them in their solitude.” The article includes this quote from a company representative:

“This is a character-based person, an entity that lives with you,” said Dor Skuler, Intuition’s chief executive and co-founder. “People who use ElliQ expect her to remember conversations, they expect her to hold context … to deal with the hard times and celebrate the great times. These are the things I think we’re on the frontier of.”

is humanity on the verge of a future where lonely humans find comfort in interaction with machines? Some would argue that that future is already here, with computers serving as the anti-isolation device, and that our increasing acclimation to smartphones, other smart devices, computers, and other electronica has created fertile ground for acceptance of robot companions. It’s an interesting question. Many elderly people who aren’t house-bound could increase their interaction with other humans by joining clubs, or churches, or support groups. If they don’t do that, will they respond to a robot? Or is a device like ElliQ a little easier, and less threatening, than putting yourself out there in a conscious effort to make friends? Could ElliQ and similar devices have the effect of promoting less human contact?

We’ll have to see about that, but I will say that the Post article’s description of ElliQ’s conversational gambits makes the device seem like a bit of a nag. If I’ve got to have a robot companion one of these days, I’d rather have one like Bender from Futurama. I suspect that Bender’s raucous approach to life would be a lot more likely to get me out and about.