Robot Companions

This article, got me thinking about how we can use robots. First a couple of stories.

My dad had a stroke a few years ago and his short term memory is shot. In a half an hour conversation, sometimes he asks the same question about 5-6 times. I visit him occasionally and talk to him, but do not spend as much time with him, as my mom does. I have to really praise my mom’s patience in dealing with this condition of his. But even she gets tired some times. My dad probably realizes this at some level. So he does not talk much. A companion robot would really help my dad and others like him. He can converse with it and since it will never be tired of answering the same question again, he can probably spend more time chatting. It may even help his condition.

I have seen inquisitive kids asking lots of questions. They ask everyone – parents, grandparents, teachers, uncles, and any one, they can get an answer from. After some time, the kids stop asking questions. They realize that asking questions is not really enjoyable, since they may not even get the right answers. A pet robot that can talk and answer questions would be a great asset to the family. Children won’t be limited by the lack of time or inability of parents to answer questions. I wonder whether a pet robot would increase children’s knowledge since the answer to every question may lead to lot more questions. But more important, children may grow up with the feeling that it is OK to ask questions.

There are lots of poor villages in India, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Africa,  and several other places in the world. Many kids in these villages don’t go to school. They have to work in the fields or do other jobs to make a living or support the family. A cab driver, I recently talked to, told me that he stopped studying after 3rd grade, because he had to earn a living. There are probably millions of people like this in the world. What happens if each village had a few companion robots. Kids and elders can walk up to them and ask questions, and get answers.

I was having a conversation with my 13 year old nephew. He is not very happy with the way his classes are conducted. And asking questions is not encouraged, since the teachers have to stay on schedule, to cover lessons. He is a bright chap and does well in his studies. So I believe him, when he says that he is very disappointed with his level of learning at school.

I think a robot can help in all these situations. It can be a great companion, if it can listen and ask a few questions and carry on a semi intelligent conversation. I am quite sure it can be programmed to never tire of answering questions. My dad, the inquisitive kid, the cab driver, the village boy and my nephew can all use this robot. The robot need not even be sophisticated. If it can understand speech, and answer questions, that will be more than sufficient. The programming of these robots is not easy. But I am sure if we start now, over the next 5-10 years, it will get a lot better. It can also use something like the Wikipedia to field questions and give answers. Of course we may need a WikiSchool which is oriented more towards teaching content, but there are already several efforts to provide learning content in wikis.

What are the essential characteristics of this robot?

  • Can look like a human or ET or some non threatening species (may even have pet versions for kids)
  • Should listen, ask questions and give answers
  • Remember people (by voice or look) so that it can remember their learning style and the learning history
  • Should be able to look up some kind of structured knowledge using Wikipedia or other similar resources
  • May optionally have a screen that can show some animations or movie clips to make a point
  • May be based on something like AIML (artificial intelligence markup language)

These robots should not cost much and the cost can go down as the volumes go up. Can the world use these robots? You bet. Will they threaten any one? Not likely.

Update:

I just found this posting on Digg about the Top Ten Robots You Can Buy. Some of them definitely have the potential to be companion robots even though the price points are quite high (like Nuvo).

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5 thoughts on “Robot Companions

  1. I know what I’d do with a robot companion – I’d set it up to read my blog! That way there’s ONE guaranteed reader 🙂

    Seriously though, they are an intersting development, but I think the costs will keep them out of reach for a little while yet.

    Get those hundred dollar laptops out there.

  2. You may be surprise at the falling costs. iRobots make robots and retails them below $200. I first thought of OLPCs and similar projects from Intel (blog pending) but there is something about a toy with a humanoid interface that may make it less machine like. The one I had in mind, is similar in power to hundred dollar laptop but only voice interface (to start with).

    You blog reader robot should also send comments. I can use that too 🙂

  3. I agree about the costs. But here is going for them:

    – The humanoid interface with speech may be less intimidating than keyboard and mouse for a lot of people
    – This may be a specialized version of the hundred dollar laptops in a different case but does not have all the other components

    I am watching the low end laptops closely.

    — Dorai

  4. You are quite right about the interface being an issue. Computers were developed in the US, and have always had the QWERTY keyboard bias. I wish I could track down the link, but these standardised keyboards cause all sorts of headaches in countries like India where there is a multitude of “official languages”, each with their own script.

    You wrote about your grandfather, and elderly people can struggle using a mouse as well.

    My reader robot would not just send comments, it would send super flattering comments 🙂

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