Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Robot Companions

A Silver Metal Lover may be much closer than you think.

According to this article in the New York Times, robots that look like animals (in this instance, a baby seal), have been developed that respond to their names and to touch. They are being used in nursing homes to provide comfort; the article called it "pet therapy without the pet." Other applications include a robot mentor for dieters (dieters report on their meals and activity on a daily basis and get encouragement in return) and sensors that help addicts cope with their cravings. In all of these situations, the responsive interaction is key. One manager at a nursing home conducted her own experiments and found that residents responded better to the interactive robot seal than to a teddy bear with the same type of fur. It's part of our psychology to treat something that responds to its environment as alive, even when it isn't.

Robots are such a staple of science fiction it's hard to think of new ways to write about them. Who could do them better than Asimov, after all?  As robots become more lifelike and better able to interact with people, will we see more stories featuring them as romantic interests? Perhaps we could have a new type of urban science fiction, with robots and androids replacing the vampires and werewolves of urban fantasy. Will we ever reach a point where we deal more with robots than people? What would society be like then? And if we learn to give sentient robots rights, will that help us tolerate the differences among human beings? I don't have answers, but I can always come up with more questions.


Ted Cross said...

In the book I am writing now I attempt to deal with the idea that if virtual companions are as perfect as we can make them, then will many humans choose to avoid relationships with other humans. After all, if they can have all the fabulous times with their virtual companions without all the nagging and money-spending of a human, why get married? It opens up the idea of a real decline in the human population.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Good point, Ted, though I wonder if that might affect certain classes of society more than others. For instance, the rich might be able to afford robot spouses, but not the poor.

Site Meter