What Robots Can — and Can’t — Do for the Old and Lonely

Social service agencies in 21 states have distributed tens of thousands of robot dogs and cats too lonely seniors, living alone and isolated from other human contact. The programs accelerated during the Covid pandemic social isolation.

Katie Engelhart reports in-depth at The New Yorker:

It felt good to love again, in that big empty house. Virginia Kellner got the cat last November, around her ninety-second birthday, and now it’s always nearby. It keeps her company as she moves, bent over her walker, from the couch to the bathroom and back again. The walker has a pair of orange scissors hanging from the handlebar, for opening mail. Virginia likes the pet’s green eyes. She likes that it’s there in the morning, when she wakes up. Sometimes, on days when she feels sad, she sits in her soft armchair and rests the cat on her soft stomach and just lets it do its thing. Nuzzle. Stretch. Vibrate. Virginia knows that the cat is programmed to move this way; there is a motor somewhere, controlling things. Still, she can almost forget. “It makes you feel like it’s real,” Virginia told me, the first time we spoke. “I mean, mentally, I know it’s not. But—oh, it meowed again!”

Engelhart makes a passing reference to the Turing Test, which posits that we’ll know we have achieved artificial intelligence when a machine can trick a person into thinking they’re conversing with another person. What Turing didn’t take into account is the person’s willingness to trick themself — to pretend that they’re conversing with another person. The pretending comes to closely resemble belief.

81-year-old Deanna Dezer holds conversations with her companion robot, ElliQ, which looks like a table lamp and does speech recognition and synthesis. Asked how she feels about ElliQ being a machine, Dezer responds, “My last husband was a robot, but he wasn’t as good as her … I know she can’t feel emotions, but that’s O.K. I feel enough for the both of us.”