A Nice Gesture by Jeroen Arendsen

Various personal interests and public info, gesture, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Tag: Mental Commitment Robot

Paro, the Mental Commitment Robot

Paro, a present for some Dutch elderly people (source)

In the local Dutch news I read that another Paro, a robot baby seal, had reached our shores. More specifically, a Paro seal entered the homes and hearts of the good people of verpleeghuis Van Wijckerslooth in Oegstgeest.

It is altogether fitting that Paro has come to Oegstgeest. Oegstgeest is a small and very old town near the coast that rose to fame as the setting of the novel ‘Return to Oegstgeest’ by Jan Wolkers. In the novel Wolkers writes a lot about his love for animals, both the cuddly ones and the less cuddly ones. It makes me wonder what Wolkers, may he rest in peace, would have had to say about Paro…

“Tsja, het is natuurlijk van de gekke dat je 4000 euro gaat betalen voor zo’n in elkaar geflanst stuk mechaniek terwijl je maar de tuin in hoeft te lopen voor de meest leuke beestjes. Maar ik snap het wel hoor. De mensen willen gewoon vertroeteld worden en vertroetelen zonder vies te worden. Ze zouden maar wat graag een robot hebben die de hele dag zijn hygiënisch schone vingertje zachtjes rondpoert in hun kont of hun kut zonder dat ze ervoor op hoeven te staan.”

There is a good deal of thinking behind Paro. For example, the creators at AIST chose the form of a baby harp seal, and not of a cat or dog, because people will not compare Paro to their experience with a real seal (since they probably will not have had a real experience with a live baby seal). Robot cats tend to be perceived as less fun and less cuddly than real cats. I know from personal experience that many people, especially kids, are quite fond of baby seals. We once went to Pieterburen, home of the world’s foremost Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre. Even though the kids were not allowed to touch any real baby seals they came to love them just by looking at those big eyes and that innocent appearance. And now, with Paro, you can actually touch and even cuddle them without smelling fishy for a week. I guess all signs are ‘go’ for entering a loving ‘mental commitment’, which is at least what Paro is intended for own homepage

“Mental Commitment Robots” are developed to interact with human beings and to make them feel emotional attachment to the robots. Rather than using objective measures, these robots trigger more subjective evaluations, evoking psychological impressions such as “cuteness” and comfort. Mental Commitment Robots are designed to provide 3 types of effects: psychological, such as relaxation and motivation, physiological, such as improvement in vital signs, and social effects such as instigating communication among inpatients and caregivers.

Rather grand claims for a robot that hardly does anything, but so far there have been reports in the news (e.g. here, here, or here) that it does have such positive effects to some extent. Yet, Paro only has a few basic sensors (light, touch, microphone, oriëntation/posture, and temperature). He can only open or close his eyes, move his head and paws a bit and ‘purr’ or ‘cry’. The solution, as always, comes from allowing the power of suggestion to work its magic. Minimalistic functionality leaves room to project feelings, moods, even personality to a robot.

The ‘gezellige’ robot

There is a robot that I have fallen in love with. I never saw him but only read a story in a newspaper about him. That leaves me free to project my hopes and desires unto this unwitting machine. His name is Hall Object and, as a robot, it has no practical use whatsoever. Or does it? It makes an impressive but otherwise dull hall of a building more gezellig. My colleague Elif was was reminded of a rabbit called Nabaztag. But while the makers of the world’s first artificial, smart rabbit are doing everything they can to make sure that your Nabaztag is functional as well as cute, Hall Object’s sole purpose is to be in a good or bad mood and react (or not) to other people in the hall:

[Hall Object] can decide to be in an certain mood and act accordingly. When it picks up signals through its sensors – from people passing by for instance – it can come toward you, showing affection, or it can turn away or ignore you and keep to himself. 

Does he socialize more easily than me? (source)

Since the 26th of october Hall Object lives in the hall of the NPS/VARA-gebouw on the ediapark in Hilversum. It is a work of art by Studio Job. I think it illustrates the only real function robots and other AI gadgets have at the moment: a social function. We find them funny, amazing, or cuddly. We project emotions on them, or even attitudes or intentions. And Hall Object is the perfect object to project stuff on, because he is blanco. An empty thing, doing just enough to be noticed, and leaving spectators free to see and think what they want.

Let us link this to Robot Asimo, who applies gesture technology for social functioning: if you wave at him, he waves back (see video). It is simple but effective. A little bit of acknowledgement of our human existence immediately sparks our imagination: “If it can see that I am here, it may have an attitude toward me. He may be watching me. He might react to what I will do. He may not like it? etc. etc.”

Asimo responds to several gestures (source Plyojump.com) and events he picks up:

  • Asimo follows a person, then stops when when it hears a command and sees a hand gesture.
  • Asimov watches a person point to where it is supposed to go, confirms by speaking, and walks over.
  • Listening to two speakers, Asimov swivels its head to face the person who just spoke.
  • Encountering two moving people, Asimov stops walking to let them pass, then resumes walking.
  • Seeing two stationary people, Asimov walks around them to its destination.
  • When the person waves, Asimov waves back.
  • With two people speaking, Asimov only listens to the one it recognizes.

In my opinion, this is the only viable application of gesture recognition technology I can foresee for the near future, apart from some niche applications and motion sensing in gaming. If a robot catches my gestures and my speech (or even my emotions) it can start to live in the same world as I do. I will no longer have to sit down and enter his realm.

Frankly, now I am in doubt. Should I visit Hall Object or stay away? I live in Hilversum, so he is only a short bike ride away. But it seems I can only lose from this encounter. Will my wonderfull illusions of a gezellige robot survive the confrontation with an actual machine, with the many flaws it will inevitably display upon close inspection? I’ll keep you posted…

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