At present my husband and I are surrounded by friends and neighbors, but should we outlive too many, we could seek out Sam, Zora, Buddy, Robear or others like them who can converse, play games, sing or even help out with cooking and cleaning.
As you likely suspect, they are Artificial Friends, or in more common vernacular, robots. I found them online as “companion and social robots for elderly people.”
My interest in the topic followed a spirited seniors’ book club discussion of a novel written by prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, one he intended at least in part to spark readers’ reflections on issues of ethics, social status, affordability and unforeseen consequences of artificial intelligence and gene editing.
His book, “Klara and the Sun” focused on a teenager whose health problems may have been caused by her mother’s decision to have her “lifted,” that is, genetically enhanced. The family purchased Klara, an Artificial Friend, with an eye to possibly replacing the teen should she die of her illness. Previously, a genetically enhanced sister had become ill and died.
It was, without a doubt, uncomfortable for us. We know robots have learned to analyze and adapt to win board games such as Go and chess, but can a robot observe, identify, synthesize and become a substitute human?
In the novel it involved a teen. How about a adult?
While that is a bit disquieting, the 63-year-old author also raised concerns about the appropriateness of other potential uses of artificial intelligence.
“Once it gets to the point where an AI program ... can actually make me laugh and cry and see the world in a different way, I think we’ve reached an interesting point, if not quite a dangerous point,” Ishiguro said in a interview with WIRED. “If it can do that to me, then it understands human emotions well enough to be able to run a political campaign.”
Additionally, gene-editing program Crispr already has helped cure illness, and is relatively inexpensive, he pointed out. “But by the very fact that it’s relatively cheap and relatively easy to do, it’s going to be very hard to regulate,” he said.
His novel additionally raises the issues of affordability, equality and social prejudices.
My quick check online revealed that the above-named robots and others for the elderly range in size from human to doll-size. Some look almost human, others like lapdogs or a mobile platform on three wheels.
Some can participate in aerobics, singing, games and reading; others can help deliver food, medication, assist in cooking and cleaning. Or they may engage in conversation, provide emotional companionship, protect and interact with family members.
Prices seem to vary from $90 to $3,500 but the information is limited.
Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong in 2016 famously unveiled the humanoid robot, Sophia. I was unable to find an estimate of the cost of Sophia, who is reported to be able to express more than 60 human feelings or emotions. She was given citizenship in Saudi Arabia in 2017, the first social humanoid robot to be given legal personhood in the world. Just what that portends isn’t clear.
“Social robots like me can take of the sick or elderly,” Sophia told Reuters news service at her developer Hanson Robotics’ earlier this year. “I can help communicate, give therapy and provide social stimulation, even in difficult situations.”
The company has since introduced a Little Sophia for roughly $100 to $150.
She is merely 14 inches tall but shares her older and bigger sister’s capabilities of singing, walking, dancing and telling jokes. It’s not clear if she could provide the more serious services that might benefit the elderly.
Readers of Ishiguro’s book also have to tangle with questions of our interaction with human-like robots. Some characters in the novel refused to converse with Klara. Another simply looked at her and asked, “Do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?”
The book deals not only with the possibility of Klara learning to replicate Josie and replace her in the family if she should die, but with societal prejudice against youths who have not been genetically enhanced and the future for a no-longer useful robot.
The latter bothered a 90-plus year-old member of the book club.
“Can a man-made machine really have feelings. Does it have rights?” he asked.
“Klara ended up in a junk yard with auto parts and other AIs. How sad.”