In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a nuclear war eliminates most of the world’s animals, leaving authentic pets to only the wealthiest humans. Everyone else finds companionship among robot pets; protagonist Rick Deckard ends up with a robot toad.
IRL, over half of US adults report experiencing feelings of isolation, which can have health consequences including an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Among older Americans, who are more prone to loneliness, loneliness costs Medicare an estimated $6.7B annually.
Are robot buddies the answer?
Intuition Robotics’ companion robot, ElliQ, is perhaps not as cute as a robot toad, but considering its minimalist design was inspired by Pixar, it’s pretty cute, with a light-up head that swivels and talks.
The New York State Office for the Aging partnered with Intuition Robotics to give 800+ local seniors an ElliQ, per Ars Technica.
- Provide reminders and prompts
- Hold a conversation
- Read audiobooks
- Offer both physical and stress-reduction exercises, and cognitive games
Useful, but does it fix loneliness?
Results are mixed thus far.
New York’s efforts found that 50% of ElliQ owners used it for companionship, with 96% reporting it was helpful at reducing loneliness.
But another study found some seniors thought ElliQ’s tone was rude and that it was intrusive. One thought they might be so annoyed by ElliQ that they’d attack it with an ax.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many are reluctant to call a machine a friend, but it’s not unheard of: We tend to project human traits onto inanimate objects — a phenomenon known as the Eliza effect — and can develop empathy for machines.
It’s quite possible that one day we’ll all have a little robot friend. And yes, I would like mine to look like a toad.
BTW: In 2021, a senior who’d been gifted a robot cat by her county’s department of aging told The New Yorker that while she knew it was a robot, its meows, purrs, and movements made it feel real. So, maybe the key really is the robot pet thing?