No One Will Grow Old Alone

| 2/16/2011 4:04:32 PM

robot-in-loveRobots, of course, are everywhere, and though some might find them creepy they're generally a lot more useful than clowns.

Maybe robots aren't actually everywhere yet, but here at the Utne Reader we seem to read a great deal about robots, and much of that reading seems to suggest that robots will soon be babysitting our children, tending to our sick, and keeping many of us company in our dotage. Some of the people involved in the robot industry, in fact, believe that we may soon see the day when robots could be our very best friends.

Like plenty of other people I am advancing on dotage with alarming speed, and I'll admit that I sometimes worry that, as a childless old man, there will be no one to care for me --let alone talk with me-- when I can no longer care for myself and get tired of talking to the walls. Except in a pinch (and it may well come to that) I can't really imagine I'd want a robot for a best friend, but I don't suppose I'd mind terribly much if a robot was around to open soup cans, speak my name from time to time, and make sure I didn't hurt myself doing calisthenics. My Utne colleague David Doody, who is also my personal physician, assures me that there is no reason in the world a robot couldn't make a dandy personal care assistant and Gin Rummy partner. He said he read a robot article that I must have missed that said that robots are even handier than crossword puzzle dictionaries and can also turn on the water in the bathtub and insure that it is neither too hot nor too cold. I wondered aloud whether it might be possible to program one of these elder bots so that it could convincingly simulate the voices of friends and loved ones, and Doody said that, yes, he felt certain this was possible. He even suggested that a robot could be taught --I don't know if that's the right word-- to discuss television shows or literature with me, if only --at least for the time being-- in a prompting, conversation-starting way (i.e. "Do you enjoy this program?" or "What was the name of Don Quixote's squire?").

Anyway, I guess I'm all for this sort of thing, and if there is going to be a proliferation of robots I can't help but hope for the peaceful coexistence of humans and robots. In science fiction novels I read when I was young, the robots always seemed to be portrayed as either slaves or combatants, and I think it would be an encouraging, progressive step if we were able instead to truly embrace them as helpmates.

In the January 21st issue of The Chronicle Review there was a story about a woman named Sherry Turkle who is some kind of scientist at M.I.T. (She's also the author of a book called Alone Together). I guess you'd have to call the article a "cautionary tale," in that Turkle started out sort of starry-eyed about robots and their potential; so much so, in fact, that there was an early moment in Turkle's career when she developed a "schoolgirl crush" on a robot.

"Imagine standing in front of a robot, gazing into its wide, plastic eyes, and falling in love," Jeffrey R. Young writes of that early moment.

Bryan Welch_5
2/24/2011 10:57:00 AM

Anyone who does business travel with an iPad already knows the sensation of being kept company by a robot. Not that it's a bad thing...

2/24/2011 10:26:28 AM

Ray Bradbury already wrote this story - it was called 'I Sing the Body Electric' and turned into a TV Movie called 'The Electric Grandmother' - and it is uncomfortably prescient in this case....

Solar Wind
2/23/2011 9:38:30 AM

These people especially the old and lonely need to get a dog to keep them company. At least an animal is a living breathing thing and a robot isn't. It would also be cheaper not to mention the cost. I'd prefer to get close to an animal. I don't care if the idea about getting up close and personal with a robot is 21st century. Call me old fashion, but I prefer to stay that way. Maybe, a robot would be good if they good do your laundry, fix your meals, and take out your trash. Nothing in the article mentions that but that is what elderly and disabled people would need, otherwise get a dog or cat for company.

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