As a co-worker, Stanley is a mixed bag. He never calls in sick, but he’s famous for napping half the workday away. He’s not very good at editing, either, but he always listens to me read aloud to smooth out the rough spots. While he’s first to notice the UPS truck, he never makes a pot of coffee.
Despite all his flaws, I don’t dismiss him. I can’t, because Stanley is a great family dog, and an even better companion.
In Latin, the word “companion” is made by joining “con,” which means “with,” and “panis,” for “bread.” In other words, it’s someone you “break bread” with.
These days, companions go far beyond meal buddies to include friends we have coffee with, siblings we run errands with and spouses we confide in before going to bed. Or, like Stanley, they don’t even have to be human. Or alive.
We interact with our smartphones, perhaps, more than anything, or anyone, throughout our busy days. So it’s no wonder they’re often called our “constant companions.” Not only do we take them everywhere with us, we also talk to them with Siri and Google Now, and they even reply back.
In director Spike Jonze’s movie “Her,” a lonely man falls in love with his virtual assistant, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. While it sounds a bit surreal, it’s not odd for us to find companionship in nearly anything — whether a dog, a phone or, as Tom Hanks knows, a volleyball on a deserted island.
It’s our deep, psychological need for social connection that is fueling a new generation of robots, and they’re filling our ineffable, yet sharp, longing for someone to talk to — and answer us back.
Robot companions sound straight out of a science fiction film, but they’re finding a way into homes in the next two or three years, according to the European Union. Mobiserv robots equipped with cameras, sensors and touch screens are being developed to take care of the elderly, by doing tasks like giving a favorite drink, reminding them to take medication and monitoring their health and safety, even alerting paramedics in the case of an emergency.
They also monitor a person’s behavior, to learn when to best approach and talk to them, even asking questions like, “How about calling your friend today?” to encourage socialization. Everything is highly-customizable, right down to its tone of voice.
“It lacks arms, so it’s not going to make you coffee. But it might suggest if you’d like a coffee or some other drink if you haven’t drank anything in a while,” Herjan van den Heuvel, project coordinator of the Mobiserv, said.
The robot is part of a larger Mobiserv smart home system, which works with sensors that can be installed in homes, and even applied to clothing and bed sheets.
Van den Heuvel sees his robots as a way to aid human care, not replace it. Caregivers, particularly family members who need to look after someone 24 hours a day, he says, often suffer from burn out, and that’s where his technology can help.
Each prototype cost around $14,000 to build, but in the coming years, Van den Heuvel expects the price to fall to about $7,000, as he scales his system for a larger numbers of patients.
In the future, these robots could run on an open platform, with third-party apps, expanding their use to services, like administrative work, surveillance or even detection. “Robots might even get arms to do physical tasks — universities are already experimenting with this,” he added. “But these things are still very expensive, and the field of physical manipulation is still very challenging.”
That idea of robot companions is gaining steam as we glean evidence on the connection between isolation and health. According to the University of Chicago, isolated seniors were five times more likely to have poor health than those who felt content.
Those without any social contact suffered the most ailments, regardless of whether they felt lonely or not.
Meanwhile, the University of Michigan reported that the more seniors interacted socially, the better they scored on cognitive tests. Just 10 minutes of conversation a day, according to the study, had the same effect as playing mind-boosting games aimed to hone cognitive functions.
But if there’s nobody around to talk to, even a pet can improve health and happiness. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, pet owners experience less illness, recover faster from serious health conditions and feel more content than those without them.
While companionship boosts our well-being, finding it can be challenging. U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, for example, called for greater help to the country’s growing number of seniors living alone. When families are far-flung, over-burdened and short of resources, it’s not often possible to care for loved ones every day. And when pets require care and exercise themselves, they aren’t often a practical solution, either.
That’s where Mobiserv, and other robots like it, bridges the gap.
I work from home, so I have little contact with the outside world — I type on a laptop and communicate with editors over e-mail or chat. In other words, there is something nice about having Stanley’s constant presence. After all, we all thirst for companionship.
I realized this after I began to telecommute. While work was very interesting, the commute to the living room was a breeze and the workplace attire of pajamas was comfortable, something was still missing. I had nobody to talk to about mundane things, like the weather or challenges of the job. And I’d often go through the workday without uttering a single sound.
On occasion, it’s fine — even blissful. But that sort of regular, day-in-day out isolation became jarring, and over time, more and more, Stanley began to fill that void. Now, I openly admit that I talk to him: he’s not just a dog or a co-worker — he’s a companion.
Psychologists believe companionship is a fundamental human need, ranking high up there with food and shelter. When Abraham Maslow, considered a leader of the humanistic school of psychology, emerged in the 1950s and ’60s, he created a hierarchy of human needs — ranging from food and shelter to morality, creativity and meaning — and then organized them into an ascending ladder.
He concluded that only after we satisfy first-level survival needs, can we do higher-order tasks to maximize our potential.
Maslow ranked companionship just behind our needs for air, food and shelter, placing it even higher than intangible desires, like achievement, meaning and appreciation. Social needs, like belonging, acceptance and affection are so valuable that they came only after basic physical and security needs.
According to Maslow, we need companionship before we can even pursue knowledge and meaning.
We don’t need lifelong companions to benefit. People who briefly pass through our life — like on vacation or during a crisis like a snowstorm — enrich us, too. My friend Rachael, for example, discovered that power during a week-long stint as a juror, when she bonded with fellow citizens while isolated in the courtroom.
Even children create imaginary friends to fulfill the need to talk to, and share experiences with, someone. It seems that desire to interact is in our DNA.
It often drives our social habits and patterns, too. It’s why we congregate in big cities and small communities, gather at places from churches to cafes, and even decide to get married. It’s the foundation for all forms of relationships, ranging from love to friendship. But instead of a means to an end, it’s also valuable in and of itself.
Despite our very real need for company, modern social patterns are pushing us to isolation. More people are living alone, and farther from families. According to CBS News, the number of one-person households grew to 27 percent, up from 17 percent in 1970. And in Canada, people living alone surpassed couples with children for the first time, making up 28 percent of all homes, the CBC reported. That’s three times higher than it was in 1961.
The trend isn’t just confined to North America. A whopping 47 percent of households in Sweden live alone, as do 32 percent in Japan.
But beyond geographic boundaries, a generation of baby boomers are finding themselves living alone, and suffering from the effects of isolation. In England, for example, about 800,000 people are chronically lonely, according to the Daily Mail. It’s a global phenomenon that’s having a big impact on the economy, and presenting opportunities for industries like housing, leisure and, of course, robot companions.
Baxter is a revolutionary, industrial robot designed to work with — and not replace — humans. Developed by Rodney Brooks, a MIT professor who invented the Roomba vacuum cleaner, it looks nothing like a sleek, futuristic machine. Instead, its big, strong arms are crafted to do repetitive tasks, according to Wired. But it does things a bit differently. Cameras, which function as eyes, scan its surroundings to pick out and track humans.
That means it’s aware, so it can avoid collisions and work alongside us. That’s a big deal. Earlier robots needed to be separated from humans to avoid injuring them. And that isolation limits their usefulness. But all Baxter needs is a power outlet, and it’s good to go.
You can train it, too. Just grab one of its arms and guide it through the motions. Once it records the correct sequence of movements, it repeats it. Simple. That means instead of hiring an army of engineers to write lines of code for it, anyone can teach Baxter to do tasks in a “do as I do” method. Each unit costs about $22,000, cheap for an industrial robot, which often runs hundreds of thousands of dollars. You also save maintenance costs, since it’s completely self-contained, and doesn’t need large mainframes to process data or programmers to support it.
Robots are being designed for busy parents with young children, too. Dutch company WittyWorX developed a robot, called “Ixi-Play,” that uses educational games to aid a child’s development. The adorable, owl-shaped companion runs on Google’s Android operating system, and uses a built-in camera to identify faces, objects and even read books.
Speech recognition software helps it respond to commands and simple language. Meanwhile, touch sensors give it the ability to react to simple physical interactions. But most importantly, it expresses basic emotions, making it an easy and friendly way for children to relate to it.
Mobiserv and Ixi-Play are the first wave of robot companions to enter the home, bringing specialized services to sufferers of Alzheimer’s and autism. My father, for example, cares of my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and my 12-year-old autistic nephew requires extra attention from my sister and her husband. Their days are long and draining, and the demands on them are often overwhelming.
Most times, they can’t do simple things they used to enjoy, like meet a friend for coffee or watch a favorite television show.
Both my father and sister have professional caregivers to help them, but my father doesn’t need a skilled nurse to keep an eye on my mother when she’s resting in bed, and my sister doesn’t need an occupational therapist to practice flash cards with her son so she can pay bills or do the laundry. Full-time care is often a waste of resources and money, but they can’t do it alone, either.
Robot companions promise to be an alternative to those challenges. They can help care for loved ones, and maybe, even give some companionship while they do it.
I won’t need one, though; Stanley works just fine — until I need that cup of coffee. ♦