The Social Machines

By Jake Burton

This article was originally published in The Oxford Scientist Michaelmas Term 2021 edition, Change.

Even before the internet, people have been using computers to talk to one another. Today, the average adult will spend 34 years of their life looking at a screen. So, it is no surprise that more and more of our social interactions are being mediated by machines. As use of social media has increased, so too have concerns that it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face communication. Indeed, even though we have more ways to keep in touch than ever before, 7.4 million of us in the UK are reported to have felt so lonely during the COVID-19 lockdowns that it affected our wellbeing.

Being lonely is not good for your health. In fact, it has been suggested that ‘living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day’. Loneliness is not a new problem, and for some groups in particular — for instance, the elderly — social isolation has been a long-standing issue. Interestingly, attempts to prevent loneliness in this group have often involved more machines, not less. But rather than the cold blue glow of the traditional computer screen, researchers have been proposing softer, more expressive, sometimes even cuddly, computers. These are the robots tackling social isolation.

The term ‘therapy animal’ doesn’t necessarily call to mind images of baby seals. Yet that is the animal, albeit in robot form, that Paro represents. Roughly the size of a cat, and covered in fluffy material, but with the weight of a newborn baby, Paro resembles a fairly hefty soft toy. Paro’s surprising weight comes from the hidden gizmos allowing them to detect touch, sound, light, heat and movement. This dizzying sensory capacity, however, translates into only a small range of behaviours. Paro can purr when stroked, cheerfully respond to their own name, and seek out eye contact. Yet somehow this is more than enough. Much more, perhaps, since people can reportedly even find a sense of connection with robot vacuum cleaners. Playing on our evolutionarily hard-wired desire to seek out connection, Paro has been shown to make dementia patients both happier and calmer.

Some researchers believe that we need our social robots to be more human-like, and able to express the nonverbal cues that are key to human relationships. Yet robots that are too human often fall victim to the ‘uncanny valley’ effect; that sense of unease we feel when robots fail to live up to our subconscious expectations of human behaviour despite their human appearance. A few social robots skilfully avoid the ‘uncanny valley’ by being more human-like, whilst remaining unmistakably robotic.

Stevie, for example, is best described as a 4 foot tall tablet with wheels. Like a human his ‘face’ can make expressions; if you tell Stevie you feel unwell, he will frown and slump forward. His small stature is part engineering constraint, part ploy. By keeping robots small they appear childlike, and people expect less from them. Stevie can only respond to around 100 common questions, but despite his limited conversational range, he is programmed to be chatty and outgoing. Just as young children try to impress adults even when they don’t follow what’s going on. And it works. Elderly care home residents report that interacting with Stevie is fun, and that he makes them laugh. Surprising even the researchers, who initially envisaged Stevie with a physically assistive role rather than as a conversationalist.

If these robots help reduce loneliness in elderly care patients, perhaps they could also work for the rest of us. Though many ethicists are concerned by the rising use of robots as stand-ins for human interaction. Sure, these robots will listen to you, but they don’t really care about you. Some argue that robots are stepping up when really we should be looking out for each other. The argument from this side is often that robots just can’t match real human interaction. This is undoubtedly the case but assumes that the alternative is a real human being. In our increasingly fractured and disconnected world, can we really say that that’s true?

With more and more of us feeling isolated and alone, maybe we could all benefit a little from talking to robots.