OK, sometimes free association produces some strange connections. Today we are talking about snuggly little robots who are programmed to be companions to patients with dementia.  My first thought however was of RoboCop, the non-snuggly robot programmed to fight crime. At first it seems an odd connection, but RoboCop was designed to do what humans could not. His job was to protect and serve the citizens of his city. He was to do this all the time, 24 hours a day, at a level humans could not sustain. (RoboCop, 1987, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093870).

Caring for patients with dementia is a 24 hours a day job too. All too often humans serving in this role reach a point of fatigue and failure just like the human police force in RoboCop did.

A recent article in The New York Times discusses the companion robot, Paro. Paro is a soft, stuffed toy-like robot that looks like a baby seal; all furry and really cute. It was designed as a companion for people who need a friend (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/05/science/05robot.html).

Thus, using a small, snuggly robot like Paro to keep dementia patients calm and occupied seems a really cool idea. The NYT article goes on to say, “Their appearances in nursing homes, schools and the occasional living room are adding fuel to science fiction fantasies of machines that people can relate to as well as rely on. And they are adding a personal dimension to a debate over what human responsibilities machines should, and should not, be allowed to undertake. … But some social critics see the use of robots with such patients as a sign of the low status of the elderly, especially those with dementia. As the technology improves, argues Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it will only grow more tempting to substitute Paro and its ilk for a family member, friend — or actual pet — in an ever-widening number of situations.”

Pets (I recommend cats as the lowest maintenance form) are wonderful companions. There are limitations however, and it’s not the feeding and cat box cleaning either, it’s that they are independent creatures. In the evening, I’ll get one of two of our four cats to sleep on my lap, if I stay still enough. The others are happy just to sack out nearby. But in the morning, after the little female, Grace, hassles me into filling the food bowl, she is the shill for the group, err… make that pride, all the cats go off and do their own thing. I’m here writing and they are wandering about, sleeping,  playing, hunting, whatever, but they are not, repeat not, providing companionship.

Back to the NYT article., “Marleen Dean … was not easily won over. When the home bought six Paro seals with a grant from a local government this year, she thought, ‘what are they doing, paying $6,000 for a toy that I could get at a thrift store for $2?’ she said.  So she did her own test, giving residents who had responded to Paro a teddy bear with the same white fur and eyes that also opened and closed. ‘No reaction at all,’ she reported. … ‘It’s something about how it shimmies and opens its eyes when they talk to it,’ Ms. Dean said, still somewhat mystified. ‘It seems like it’s responding to them.’ … Yet several patients whose mental faculties are entirely intact have made special visits … to see the robotic harp seal. ‘I know that this isn’t an animal,’ said Pierre Carter, 62, smiling down at the robot he calls Fluffy. ‘But it brings out natural feelings.’ ”

So, a robot has infinite patience and will be a happy companion as long as the battery is charged. When the battery is drained it will seem to be asleep, but still in your arms and happy. The need to give and receive companionship and nurturing reminds me of the ending of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. “The novel concludes or simply stops with Rose of Sharon breastfeeding a starving stranger. The last sentence reads: ‘She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.’ … Barbara Heavilin notes, ‘It also leaves a powerful closing image of human compassion — giving what little one has to save another’” http://cornellreading.typepad.com/grapes_of_wrath/2009/08/chapter-30-the-ending.html).

Image from Seen and Heard International Opera Review (http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2007/Jan-Jun07/wrath1702.htm)