Go to a Japanese nursing home and you might see elderly people hugging a fluffy white baby seal. This is not a stuffed animal, it’s a robot that responds to petting and sounds – and can show emotions. Paro (that’s its name) is highly successful in calming dementia patients and has become a valuable therapeutic tool.
Paro is one of many smart objects designed to not only do a specific task but do it in a way that fulfills our emotional need. Jennifer Dunnam, Senior Interaction Designer at frog is researching this accelerating trend and presented a variety of new products that cater to our “softer side” at short SXSW talk (check slide show below). “What makes us human is our emotional intelligence and these devices with their personalized output can directly influence our behavior,” she said.
But it is not only robots becoming more “human”, advances in sensor technology make it now possible to manifest our emotions in physical objects like a shirt changing shape depending on your mood. We can also find out things about ourselves which we didn’t know before, or, more likely, knew but denied. What if your glasses could tell you through facial analysis and remote sensing that your partner didn’t really like the food you just made but instead told you it was great? Makes for uncomfortable dinner conversation.
Joi Ito, director of the MIT media lab, thinks our conciousness, our rational mind, can indeed get in the way. A classic example is the Placebo effect, where people without knowing that the treatment is scientifically not working nevertheless get better. At his lab(s), teams try to build interfaces and systems that interact with our subconscious to be more fluid and effective.
All this raises difficult moral questions. Should we meet the need of people with products that essentially sucker them into thinking something that’s not true? Do we still go every weekend to visit our demented grandmother in the nursing home if we know she is just as happy with a robot seal? Is it actually good for a relationship if we can spot all the little white lies? As so often, time will tell and the SXSW crowd will make it happen.