Finding Company in Covid

Coronavirus lockdowns have been isolating experiences for many of us across the world, and for those that live alone, even more lonely. While lockdowns may be easing in some parts of Japan, it remains important to social distance and work from home if possible, making socialising difficult.

To help with this, later this year Yamaha is releasing a robotic pal called Charlie. Diminutive in size, Charlie is a bit like an Amazon Echo, but with a face. It’s designed as a conversation companion, and is being used by product testers to stave off covid-related loneliness.

It seems something of a stereotype to talk about robots in Japan, but from Astro Boy to robot-shaped mobile phones, there do seem to be plenty of them about. There also is something to be said about how they can help with loneliness. My PhD research looked at how the British press talked about technology in Japan, and my fieldwork was spent hunting down robots in the field. During this time, I visited a care home in Kanagawa prefecture, where robots were used extensively: conducting exercise sessions, delivering quizzes, and helping people out of bed. However, the most popular robot was the simplest: a fluffy seal that wriggled and purred. Now being used in the UK, Paro robots have been found to help provide comfort to the elderly and those with dementia.

Small communication robots have been in development for a while, and a couple of years ago, Toyota brought out its Kirobo Mini, designed to sit in a car’s cupholder and keep drivers company, particularly on long journeys when there is a risk of fatigue. More and more of us are bringing smart speakers such as the Alexa or Google Home into our houses and, as television advertisements would have us believe, into our families, it’s not that much different to a little robot. Why not give it something of a personality? Why not give it a cute face, rather than a glowing cylinder?

How do you feel about robots and smart speakers? Do you think they are a viable solution for the lonely? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Image: Paro seal robot at the TEPIA Advanced Technology Gallery, taken by the author in 2016.

%d bloggers like this: