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.

All Alone

I’ve been reading The Martian by Andy Weir   Made into an Oscar-nominated movie that I haven’t yet seen, the book tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a Mars expedition who is injured and lost in a blistering sandstorm and presumed dead by his crewmates.  They leave because the sandstorm threatens to wreck their exit vehicle and their ability to get home, and Watney then finds himself abandoned on Mars, with no means of communicating with Earth.

The book’s careful recounting of Watney’s efforts to use the remnants of the expedition supplies to create water, grow food, and stay alive long enough to be rescued — and later, the discovery of NASA that he is still alive and the efforts to get him home before he starves — is riveting.  I can’t attest to the engineering and practical science involved in Watney’s development of soil capable of growing potatoes or his cannibalization of rovers to create a vehicle capable of a long-distance journey, but they have the ring of authenticity, and you can’t help but applaud his ingenuity.

the-martian-matt-damonAll of this occurs, though, against the backdrop of a bigger human drama:  a person left all alone on an alien planet, with no means of communicating to fellow members of his species, and always on the ragged edge of death from starvation or the hostile Martian environment. How would any person cope with such absolute solitude?  Watney establishes a journal to maintain a conversation of sorts, and he goes through the music, book, and TV selections left behind by his former crewmates — and pays the price by enduring disco music and the complete episodes of Three’s Company.   But even the syncopated efforts of the Bee Gees and feeble comedic antics of Jack Tripper and his roommates Chrissy and Janet, and the human interaction they reflect, are preferable to complete isolation.  In effect, the journal, the songs, and the TV shows are Watney’s version of Wilson, the volleyball who became Tom Hanks’ only companion on Cast Away.

Watney’s got a great sense of humor and a never say die mentality that allows him to deal with his predicament, but as you read the book you can’t help but wonder how you would deal with total abandonment on a desolate, alien planet — assuming, of course, that you had the botanical and engineering training that would allow you to survive using the same steps Watney followed.  After the initial zeal for trying to survive, how would you react after weeks and weeks of drudgery, with no actual communication or direct human interaction of any kind?  It’s hard to imagine that even good TV, music, and reading material could fill that void and allow you to maintain the positive attitude that would be essential to survival.  Most of us, I suspect, would just stop caring and give up.