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Post Coronavirus there’s a lot Robots can do – except for one Crucial Thing

A couple of weeks ago I read an article with the renowned medical robotics scientist Professor Guang-Zhong Yang about the changes Coronavirus is bringing to the industry. At the end of the interview Prof. Yang mentioned that robots could also help people in isolation, referencing his own feelings of loneliness while being quarantine ata hotel in Shanghai.

Coronavirus quarantineis a major problem worldwide, but for older people it is infinitely worst. On the one hand they are most at risk so must isolate.  On the other hand, isolation kills –especially old people.

Research has shown time and time again that loneliness is a health hazard to older people; in fact it is an epidemic of the industrialized world. Now comes Coronavirus, andas a New York Times article put it succinctly, “Just what older people didn’t need:more isolation.”

So how about those social robots Prof. Yang was talking about. Social robots aren’t new. They’ve been around for about two decades. Two famous examples are PARO, a robot designed to look like a baby seal, and AIBO, a pet dog robot. As you probably guessed form the names, both are Japanese inventions and are used in Japanese nursing homes to entertain and ease the loneliness of residents.

I saw them both when I visited an exhibition called Future and the Arts at the Mori Museum in Tokyo (four months ago –it seems like eons).

A section at the exhibition explored technological developments and emotional connections, and included a room full of pets and animal-lookalike robots including PARO and AIBO.

Needless to say,it was the most popular room in the exhibition. Everyone stuck around, both children and adults, to  interact and play affectionately with these cute robots.

But this is amuseum, a snapshot, not a real life experience. In real life I think that human-robot emotional interaction is untenable. What’s more, it is morally wrong.

Robots cannot replace our loved ones. It’s that simple. Sure, humans get attached to inanimate objects: children to their pacifier and blanky, some grownups to their clothes, their phones, their cars. These objects serve as memory holders,even give us a sense of stability in an unstable period of our life. But at a certain point we grow, and the object is discarded and forgotten because it never did mean what a human means to us.  

A robot doesn’t have emotions and in the foreseeable future will not be able to mimic the full range of human emotions over time: the intricate back and forth between your body, your mind our body and our mind; the trillions of neurons that generate our smallest flickering of emotion.

But let’s say that one day robots will be so sophisticated that they would appear to show real emotions. Even then, a silent truth will disprove this relationship: we will know very well that we are trying to connect with a machine.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should continue our efforts to develop robotic technologies that help the elderly. Older people could use the help of robots to make food, help them get out of bed, connect them with their loved ones.

But we must keep in mind that robots can only accomplish the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The curators of the exhibition at the Mori museum showed that the relational concept between humans and robots can change; but what makes us human does not change. By the third level of Maslow’s Triangle, robots leave the picture.

Sure, the nice old lady across the hall would really appreciate a robot that can help her clean the house or get up from a chair, or maybe even make keep her amused. But she will not survive without human interaction. And you can be sure that she will always know the difference.

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