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baby seal robot

Styled after a baby seal, a robot that blinks and coos when petted is often therapeutic for patients with dementia.

Credit: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times

Robots designed to provide companionship are making strides. Examples include a device styled after a baby seal that responds to light, sound, touch, and temperature, and which is being used to soothe distressed people, such as dementia patients. The falling cost of such machines may help lead to their wider use.

Scientists have noticed that people tend to display animus toward robots that do not follow preconceived behavioral patterns. Some critics are concerned that the growing popularity of personal robots will encourage the replacement of human-human engagement.

Computer scientists say human-robot interaction stems from a fundamental human reflex to treat objects that are responsive to their surroundings as if they are living. "When something responds to us, we are built for our emotions to trigger, even when we are 110 percent certain that it is not human," says Stanford University professor Clifford Nass. "Which brings up the ethical question: Should you meet the needs of people with something that basically suckers them?"

View a video of residents of the Knollwood retirement community in Washington, DC, interacting with Paro, a personal robot.

From The New York Times
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