Article by Corinne Purtill | Excerpt from QUARTZ | 12 SEPTEMBER 2018
Among the symptoms of dementia is a phenomenon called “sundowners syndrome”: an increase in agitation, confusion, and anxiety as late afternoon transitions to evening. Its cause isn’t well understood; circadian rhythm disruptions precipitated by the change in light, anxiety over end-of-day activity, and hormonal fluctuations have all been floated as theories. Whatever the trigger, sundowners can make otherwise amiable people combative and even violent, a frightening and unsettling experience for patients and caregivers alike.
Staff in hospitals and nursing homes typically treat the symptoms with sedative drugs. But in recent years, facilities from Japan to the US have turned instead to a specialist: a robot baby seal named Paro.
Paro spent a decade in development at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. The robot seal came to market in 2004 and is now in use in many parts of Asia, Europe, and North America to offer the psychological benefits of pet therapy in situations where a real animal isn’t practical…
To a person in normal cognitive health, Paro is unmistakably a machine. A soft mechanical sound accompanies its motions; up close, you can see its whiskers have tiny sensors on the ends. Given the comfort it brings to people suffering a dreadful disease, insisting that patients recognize its artificiality seems cold and beside the point.
But you don’t have to peer very far into the future to see the possibility of interactions in which it will be difficult even for a person with their full cognitive facilities to tell the difference between robots and reality.
The Auckland, New Zealand-based tech company Soul Machines™ creates AI interfaces that look uncannily like high-definition video chats with a real human being. It doesn’t quite pass the Turing Test, but it’s easy to imagine a situation in which someone with limited eyesight or cognitive disabilities believes they’re having a human conversation when talking to a robot like “Ava.”
Or this baby.
Soul Machines™ licenses its user interface technology to businesses and institutions. Its technology has powered digital assistants for banks, airlines, and software companies, as well as a prototype virtual assistant, voiced by the actor Cate Blanchett, that was designed to help people with disabilities navigate Australia’s public benefits system. (That program was shelved, not long after the Australian government’s disastrous introduction of an automated system to detect welfare fraud drew public outcry.) Soul Machines™ has discussed services for the elderly with prospective clients but has not announced any partnerships on that subject to date, says chief business officer Greg Cross.
Soul Machines™ envisions a future in which digital instructors educate students without access to quality human teachers, and in which famous deceased artists are digitally resurrected to discuss their works in museums. Robot companions for the infirm, then, are not too far a leap. Nor is the prospect of a future in which a family converses with the lively AI recreation of a person suffering from dementia, while a caregiver—robot or human—tends to their ailing body in another room.