Monday, October 02, 2006

Of "Carebots" and the "Uncanny Valley".

Have you ever heard of "Carebots"? I hadn't until this morning- NPR did a story on them. Evidently they are the "coming thing" in elderly care- just in time for the influx of babyboomers into the nation's nursing homes. These robots can monitor blood pressure, dispense pills and alert emergency services if circumstances warrant it. But the most anticipated use for these machines is the capability of "logging in" to the robot via internet, for monitoring or social interaction. A nurse can see to the needs of various patients over great distances. A friend or relative can make a virtual visit. A particularly cranky eldster can avoid the intrusions of privacy that they associate with a personal nurse. Does that seem like an ideal situation for your age-advanced loved one?

The Japanese are leading the field in the practical application of robotics. They are planning to rely on them to provide companionship. The Snuggling IfBot (I'm not making this stuff up) responds to verbal commands, assisting their charges in their avoidance of senility. Japan is going to need this technology. They are experiencing a rapid decline in childbirth, and the government doesn't encourage immigration. They simply don't have a lot of humans to spare for sitting around and talking to old people. I'm not surprised that they have seized this opportunity- after all, didn't they invent the handheld virtual pet?

But it seems our far eastern friends are not the only ones clamoring to apply this technology to the thorny "immigrant problem" so much in vogue. Check out this raving lunatic and the virtual foam forming at the edges of his mouth. Note the title of his post: He believes he has found THE answer. We don't need those scummy Mexicans... just build more robots, and the companies can turn their back on the cheap labor from across-the-border. ***

The question is... if we discount the human-replacement camp who seem to cream their shorts at the thought of eliminating poverty by eliminating the poor... is society ready for robots in the human services industry? I'm not so sure. It turns out that for most people, robots look EVEN MORE alien than Mexicans! This is due to an effect called the "Uncanny Valley". I would have suspected that the term was made-up had I not interviewed a robot designer a few years back. He explained that humans generally have a positive response as robots appear more humanoid. But there is a point- as the resemblance becomes increasingly human, yet still fundamentally flawed- that folks experience a countervailing repulsion toward the robot. Once the machine appears familiarly human, the reponse becomes rapidly positive once again. Call it an assimilationist's viewpoint.

It's true that babyboomers have made great strides in embracing advances in technology during their lifetimes. But are they ready to be be ministered to in their dotage by their HMO's version of the Stepford Wives? They might not have a choice.

*** Actually, in the case of the Rapture, resulting labor shortages could be effectively addressed with the employment of Carebots and other robotic humanoid servants. The exchange might not even be noticed if implemented in a timely fashion... "Uncanny Valley" or not.


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