TOKYO – As isolation caused by a pandemic sparks an epidemic of loneliness, the Japanese are increasingly turning to ‘social robots’ for comfort and mental healing.
At the town’s Penguin Cafe, the proud owners of the electronic dog Aibo recently gathered with their cyber puppies in Snuglis and fancy bags. From the camera-integrated muzzle to their sensor-filled paws, these high-tech dogs are nothing short of family, despite being priced at nearly $ 3,000 – mandatory cloud plan not included.
No wonder Aibo has made its way into hearts and minds. Relaunched in 2017, Aibo’s AI-powered personality is painstakingly shaped by the whims and habits of its owner, creating the type of intense emotional attachment typically associated with beloved children or pets.
Noriko Yamada rushed to order one, when her mother-in-law started showing signs of dementia several years ago. âMother had stopped smiling and talking,â she told CBS News. “But when we turned on the dog and he looked at her, she just turned on. Her demeanor changed 180 degrees.”
And a few months ago, when the mother-in-law was hospitalized with heart disease, Koro the robot came to the rescue again. âDue to COVID, we were unable to visit him. The nurse said mom was responding to Koro’s photos and asked us to bring the dog. So Koro was the last person in our family to see. mom alive. ”
Robots as companions are an easier leap for Japanese people, say many manufacturers and users, as the country is steeped in lovable androids, like the long-running TV cartoon “Doraemon,” in which a cute friend and roly-poly not only provides constant companionship, but an endless supply of useful tips.
But a robot startup is proving that looks aren’t everything. Despite having no head, arms or legs, the Qoobo bot sold more than 30,000 units in September, many to stressed users working from home under COVID restrictions. The retail price starts at around $ 200.
Yukai Engineering CEO Shunsuke Aoki told CBS News that Qoobo exploits the nicest parts of a pet – a fluffy torso and a wagging tail. âAt first it seemed strange,â he said. “But when you pet an animal like a cat, you usually don’t bother to look at its face.”
Angry adults aren’t the only Japanese turning to robots. At Moriyama Kindergarten in Nagoya City, central Japan, robots are replacing the traditional guinea pig or rabbit. Teachers told CBS News that robots reduce anxiety and teach children to be more human.
Two years ago, the kindergarten bought a pair of Lovot brand robots named Rice Cake and Cocoa. Weighing as much as a baby, with the price of a French Bulldog, cybernetic machines are designed to bombard their owners with love – or, in this case, a room full of restless five-year-olds.
âOur kids think robots are alive,â Director Kyoshin Kodama said. “The robots encouraged the children to take better care of things, to be kinder to each other and to cooperate more.”
Lovot is a so-called “emotional robot” programmed to autonomously navigate his surroundings, remember his owners, and respond to hugs and other ailments, watching with his oversized, quivering, high-resolution eyes. In the past year, sales have increased 11-fold.
“Their body temperature is set at 98.6 degrees,” Groove X spokesperson Miki Ikegami told CBS News. âRobots are generally tough and cold and inhuman. But because our robots are designed to be calming, we’ve made them warm and soft.â
Japan’s oldest and best performing social robot is an FDA-approved device called Paro.
Resembling a regular plush toy, the AI-powered bot personalizes its response as it gets to ‘know’ each patient. Inventor Takanori Shibata, based at the Japan National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, told CBS News that clinical trials have confirmed the device’s benefits as a non-drug therapy. “Interaction with Paro can improve depression, anxiety, pain, and also improve a person’s mood.”
Since their launch in 1998, thousands of Paro robots have entered service around the world, relieving stress for children in intensive care, treating US veterans with PTSD, and helping patients with dementia.
Like real flesh and blood pets, Paro has been shown to stimulate brain activity, helping to reconnect damaged areas. âA lady hasn’t spoken for over ten years,â Shibata said. “When she interacted with Paro, she started talking to Paro and she got her speech back and she talked to others.”
Neuroscientist Julie Robillard, who studies social robots for children and the elderly, told CBS News that robotics experts are trying to unravel the exact nature of the human-robot relationship – and the notion of machines as friends is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
âWe can be attached to various types of devices and objects,â said Robillard, assistant professor of neurology at the University of British Columbia. “Some people have given names to their robot vacuumsâ¦ Some people are very attached to their cars or to their wedding rings.”
Evidence supports the use of social robots, she said, in areas such as teaching children with autism social skills or teaching rehabilitation patients exercises – offering instructions without judgment.
But in other areas, it’s unclear whether social robots really work, she said. “What we can say from the science right now is that robots have enormous potential.”
And discovering this potential is all the more urgent now, in the age of covid, as robots offer the promise of social connection without social contact.
The creators say smart social robots will never replace humans. But when companions, caregivers, or therapists aren’t available, robots lend a friendly paw – and are already making a living.