Robot Companions. "Developing cognitive robots whose 'purpose in life' would be to serve humans as assistants or 'robot companions.' Such robots would be able to learn new skills and tasks in an active open-ended way and to grow in constant interaction and co-operation with humans."
(From the European Commission's "Beyond Robotics" work program.)
Can you imagine yourself living with a robot? And not just any normal household robot like your vacuum cleaner Roomba, but one designed specifically to interact with humans by actually knowing how to perceive, decide, communicate and learn from its environment? I personally wouldn’t mind a droid keeping me company, especially a faithful, quirky one like C3PO, but chances of us seeing bots as stable and advanced as him in the near future is still pretty slim. I mean, the droid is fluent in over six million forms of communication, and has helped saved the galaxy a number of times. It looks like we’ll have to be content with companion bots that are meant to entertain, comfort and provide some form of “love,” at least for now.
Perhaps the best known form of robot companion for now are robotic pets, usually in the shape of real or mythical animals. Sony manufactured AIBO, among other robotic products, an autonomous bot that could walk, "see" its environment and recognize spoken commands in Spanish and English. The robots are also able to learn based on stimuli from their owner or environment, allowing them to form their own distinct personalities over time.
Animal robot companions like Sony's AIBO are highly popular with the physically & mentally ill and the elderly, as these pets provide them with much needed comfort and companionship, without the hassles that come with taking care of live animals. Unfortunately AIBO is no longer sold.
Researchers in Georgetown University, Washington DC, have published several findings on the benefits of robotic pets to humans or ‘robotherapy' or 'robopsychology,’ stating that stroking robotic pets like NeCoRo the cat is beneficial to health, and that these companion machines could even be improved to perform more specific tasks, such as reminding patients to take their medication.
Other companion pets with reportedly therapeutic effects for the aged and disabled are SEGA’s robo-cat and Paro the robotic seal, whose healing effects were recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records and was officially certified as the ‘World's Most Therapeutic Robot' in 2002.
Less inanimate than AIBO and Paro but geared towards providing the same therapeutic effect is the soft, robotic pillow called the Hug. Designed by robotics researchers at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, the pillow uses sensing and wireless phone technology to provide a physical touch along with a voice call, hence offering a stronger social and emotional connection between distant family members.
The Hug robot pillow was developed specifically after research found that what older people often needed the most was emotional support, which the pillow, through it shape, texture, voice recognition software and microphone is designed to provide.
The general term for robots who care for people is a "carebot" and Carebot is also a name for Gecko Systems' robot that is intended to someday care for the "elderly, chronically ill, and children."
For the more daring folks, companion robots come in different shapes and sizes, like the Roxxxy sex robots which are poised to become man’s (but perhaps not women's) newest best friends.
A real sexy robot and highly realistic to the point of disturbing (see the "uncanny valley"), the Roxxxy bot is being billed as the first life-size anatomically correct robotic girlfriend complete with artificial intelligence. Research proving therapeutic and healing benefits for this one has yet to come out.
Certainly a less sexy robot is NEC Corporation’s PaPeRo', a personal robot designed to partner people in their homes with the aim of improving human-machine interface. 'PaPeRo' ('Partner-type Personal Robot') has human-like characteristics and expressions, can walk, talk and can remember its owners' interests and preferences.
Features of the robot include strengthening communication channels among family members through video messages and the ability to interact with its owner through dance, games, reminders, clock functions and the remote operation electrical appliances in the home. Most other companion robots for the younger market are of this type, serving more entertainment and amusement functions than anything.
History is no doubt filled with samples of humans wanting the power to breathe life into inanimate matter, the power to design their own companions according to their specifications. Now, major advances in art, science and technology have allowed us the opportunity to begin. We are a long, long way from Anakin Skywalker's C3PO to be sure but we are definitely on our way.