Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Perception, Imagination and Affect in Human- Robot Relationships

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Perception, Imagination and Affect in Human- Robot Relationships

Article excerpt

The robotic baby harp seal Paro gazes up with large dark eyes set amid soft, thick, white fur, raising its head in response to its name. It bats long eyelashes and waggles its tail, cooing when caressed and squawking if held too tightly. When a dummy-shaped charger is introduced into its mouth, it coyly turns its head away. The robot cries for attention and settles down at nighttime. Its actuators are designed to be especially quiet and its mechanisms are well hidden by an abundant coat. Its appeal lies somewhere between a pet animal and a large plush teddy bear.

Paro is a widely distributed and researched example of a zoomorphic social robot designed to stimulate feelings of wellbeing in its interlocutor.1 It was made available in 2005 as a therapeutic companion for the elderly in Japan and is now used across thirty countries, including Australia where a randomised controlled trial is currently underway.2 Before the late twentieth century robots were figments of the imagination. Today they are tangible, although still thoroughly entwined with our imagination. When Paro is placed alongside people or on their lap, they stroke, mimic, talk to and cuddle the robot in response to its gestures and sounds. They also engage with it socially in interaction with carers and other patients. Although it is sometimes rejected or discarded, most reactions to the robot are positive and some people enthusiastically embrace the device. Among other affordances, Paro might replace the comfort of a pet or function as a positive communal occupation to pass the time. Research indicates that the robotic seal increases positive affect in the elderly, encourages people with dementia to speak and socialise, and is especially effective when deployed as part of a social experience.3 In Denmark, where Paro is widely used, a one-day training program for caregivers working with Paro recommends Paro be used as a stimulating activity in an individual or group setting, or as a specifically targeted therapy to arouse, settle down or stimulate memory and language.4 Across the countries in which Paro is distributed, caregivers generally structure sessions with the robot according to the needs of the participants. Pets are frequently invoked when the device is first introduced to people.

As social robots arrive in our homes, nursing facilities and educational institutions, urgent questions are being asked about the ethics of encouraging people to have feelings towards these devices that have roles as companions, carers and teachers. This article suggests that the quality of these debates is enhanced by examining how people perceive robots, in particular how robots' expressive characteristics stimulate feelings through engaging the embodied imagination.

Paro's most striking expressive features are its eyes, fur, gestures and sounds, which are experienced visually, aurally, tactilely and proprioceptively. Its large and animated orbs almost solely carry the effect of a facial expression, with its remaining face amorphous and still.

The size of the eyes is exaggerated, as are the long eyelashes by which they are framed. Expressive features of robots and animated figures often call heavily on the eyes (for examples, see the robots Kismet, Buddy and Domo, and animated figures like Rango and the Despicable Me minions). Paro does not see through its eyes; nonetheless, those interacting with it attribute meaning to them. Eye contact symbolises and generates a sense of connection, and direction of gaze indicates attention and intention.

Paro's eyes (and those of many animated figures) also establish the device's cuteness, evoking associations with human and animal infants, as well as associated ideas and feelings concerning powerlessness, care and tenderness. The exaggerated eyes are set amid the robot's blobby shape and fluffiness in a manner characteristic of cute objects, as noted by Sianne Ngai, who writes that a typical cute object has a 'simplistically simplified and even unformed' face. …

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