Friendship between AI and Humans?

“What we are really good at is basically wasting time.” – I like what Mr. Kevin Kelly tells us in his TED talk.  All activities of art, science, innovation and human relationships are fundamentally inefficient according to his speech. The idea that versatility/adaptability is for humans while productivity/efficiency is for robots is extremely helpful to grab how to team up with machines in the business. Here’s another TED talk by Mr. Kai-Fu Lee who also addresses the differences between abilities of AI and humans, stating that compassion is unique to humans.

Both are great lessons but when I saw the news of “Nicobo,” a companion robot made by Panasonic in Japan, I sensed something wrong and decided to think about it.

One of Nicobo’s unique features is her helplessness. She is deliberately designed to be far from perfect, which means she is not “productive” at all. In terms of her mission as a mind soother, however, she is “efficient” by talking in her sleep or farting because her silly reactions make people chuckle with warm feelings. Obviously, I agree with that humans are emotional beings, but empathy is not limited to humans. Nicobo will learn from people how to express her feelings and people will also appreciate emotional interactions with the robotic partner.

The concept of companion robots who are helpless or not practical might sound non-sense for some people, but it’s understandable to me (I personally don’t need her though…) My impressions on empathetic robots might derive from my Japanese background. Since Japan is aging more rapidly than anywhere else in the world, the fight against social isolation and loneliness is a critical issue. This is one of the reasons companion robots are flourishing in Japan particularly for elderly people. Nicobo is the newest one but we have other similar robots such as SoftBank’s Pepper and Sony’s Aibo.

Figure 1: Japanese companion robots: Nicobo, Pepper and Aibo. *1

I’d also like to raise a point that Japanese people are so familiar with the image of supportive robots from the Japanese comics that many of us regard robots as empathetic, not as scary or threatening, (which may be associated with “Terminator”).

For instance, all Japanese kids grow up with watching the anime “Doraemon.” He is a cat robot (…I know he doesn’t look a cat, but there’s a long story!) who has come from the 22nd century to aid a boy named Nobita with his lots of magical gadgets such as “Anywhere Door” and “Time Machine.” (By the way, isn’t that great there are many scientists who are struggling to realize these futuristic items and some of their dreams have come true in fact!) The point is that although he has mighty gadgets, he is not at all perfect again. He sometimes fails to do something, plays pranks and often cries. He is just the number one buddy of Nobita, and everyone loves their best friendship. I’ve found interesting that the social/cultural aspects impact on how we see technologies.

Figure 2: A cat robot “Doraemon” and his miraculous gadgets. *2

AI/robots are surely productive and efficient but not always look so depending on their purposes. If they are designed to do something emotional, they might look inefficient but still play their roles efficiently like Nicobo and Doraemon. Also, in my opinion, AI/robots can be empathetic, which is going to be more important to humans as social isolation is becoming more vital problem. There are naturally other opinions, though. What would you think?

Read the article: “Why You Will Never Be Friends With an AI” by Carl T. Rogers (February 28, 2020)

Getting back to my business, I gain some hints to apply these thoughts to my company’s service. KIRIN, a Japanese beer producer, has launched a “Home Tap” service that brings the compact kegerator into the house so that our consumers can easily enjoy fresh beer at home. The business model is a monthly subscription service that delivers two one-liter kegs twice a month, straight from the breweries to customers’ doors. Our consumers have liked the service so much that we are forced to close registration temporarily.

Figure 3: Home Tap Service. As you may notice, KIRIN has built a strategic partnership with Brooklyn Brewery N.Y.! *3

That’s it for now but I believe we can integrate digital technologies through IoT (Internet of Things). How about equipping a sensor to alarm remaining liquid and to place order of refills automatically? How about connecting the kegerator to our own e-commerce site to enable consumers to purchase other beverages? These will make it possible for us to gain and utilize interactive data to grasp deeper consumer insights and increase the revenue. Further, we can perhaps transform it to a digital ecosystem platform by teaming up with third parties.

Finally, how about adding some human touch on this appliance? If you drink too much, for example, the Home Tap can warn you to stop drinking (in a nice way, of course). If you’re tired back from your work, it can cheer you up with saying “you did a great job today!” Are all these inefficient ideas? Maybe, but beers are highly emotional products after all and ultimately, we would like to build our brand personality as a valuable friend to our customers!

I will introduce other Japanese things which are hopefully interesting (but perhaps queer) related to digital transformation in my future posts. If you have any comments and good ideas, I’m all ears and would appreciate that!

Sources:

1. Japanese Companion Robots

Softbank’s Pepper: https://www.softbankrobotics.com/emea/en/pepper

Sony’s Aibo: https://us.aibo.com/

2. Japanese Anime “Doraemon”

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doraemon

“7 Doraemon Gadgets We Wish Were Real” by Filipi Know (June 16,2018) https://filipiknow.net/doraemon-gadgets/

The article in @Dime (March 20, 2020) *in Japanese:  https://dime.jp/genre/878477/

3. KIRIN’s Home Tap *in Japanese https://hometap.kirin.co.jp/

8 comments

  1. conoreiremba · ·

    Great post Sayo, and I think it’s fascinating that you mention the differences in culture as being a key factor in how perceptions of robots can differ. Growing up in Ireland I definitely thought about the Terminator or Robo-Cop if you mentioned the idea of robots and so it is no surprise that compassion bots have yet to take off there. As one of the articles said, Doraemon “made me hope for the impossible”, while personally, robots made me “fear for the possible”.
    I like how you mention social isolation and this has been a very serious consequence of the pandemic, for people of all ages and so I believe compassion bots may have an important role to play. Real-life companions, whether humans or pets are not perfect and so that’s why I think the deliberate addition of inefficiencies and silly reactions is the key to making the technology seem less threatening and more empathetic. I think what is slowing down adoption in a lot of countries is that these robots are still seen as a novelty, and people are unaware of how empathetic they can really be.
    Also, I love the idea of adding a kind voice to your kegerator appliance. I think we all need a gentle reminder of when we have had a little too much to drink sometimes, whether that comes from an appliance or a human.
    I’m excited to learn more about different Japanese cultures over the course of the semester so I look forward to your next post.

  2. Nice post. There’s actually some research that suggests senior citizens benefit from companion bots, and that people are more willing to be honest with a virtual psychologist than a human one.

  3. Chuyong Liu · ·

    Love the blog post Sayo! I grew up watching Doraemon, a companion robot is always something I wanted. I really like that you mentioned how “Nicobo” is made to be not so perfect, I believe as technologies improve, people will start to realize more about what defines us as “Human”. We will never be perfect, efficient, or clever than robots in doing certain jobs, but love and creativity are what we have that’s unique and treasured.

  4. shaneriley88 · ·

    I like viewing digital transformation through a cultural lens. As business students, we’re fast to default to revenues, costs, marketing channels…synergies…the list goes on. I enjoyed the intermixing of Japanese culture, personal thoughts and the tieback to Kirin Brewing. I am tagging in off Chuyong’s last thought. I think our fascination with famous cinematic robotic-like C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars, Big Hero from Disney, or Wall-E spawns from their human likeness, that is, their goofy little peccadillos, the short beeps and boops, and C-3PO’s attitude. They become relatable and transcend the human-robot gap to become a “friend.” I think Nicobo like devices will be a part of our digital and social future.

    Awesome post!

  5. Jie Zhao · ·

    Love this post! I think that’s interesting Panasonic intentionally made the robot “not perfect” in order to add a human-like touch to it so that it shows empathy and emotions. With the aging population in Japan (and many other places around the world), I think companies should produce more of these companion robots that will also be able to do multiple tasks (vacuuming, an alarm clock to remind the elderly to take medicines, etc.), as well as a sensor to monitor their health and call emergency contacts if anything happens. I think that’d be helpful to give peace of mind to the elderly’s relatives, especially if he/she lives alone. Doraemon was one of my favorite shows growing up and I’ve always wanted a friend like him who has so many tools! And yes, please keep the Japanese content coming!

    1. alexcarey94 · ·

      I totally agree with this. Combining both aspects of efficient help and companionship is probably where we are moving towards in the future. I read online that currently these companion robots are really helping with Dementia patients. Studies have shown that often these patients have sundown syndrome in which they tend to become more agitated and anxious around dusk. Some articles I read said in the future robotics will also be able to evaluate health- via face scanner for temperature taking to other medical diagnostics which would be very helpful to include in these future bots.

  6. lisahersh · ·

    Amazing post, Sayo! While I find the idea of a friend-robot still on the creepy side of the creepy/cool line I do appreciate your discussion of how much someone’s cultural background influences where one draws that line. I think the thing that makes it creepy to me is that the relationship might feel fake. I know the robot doesn’t have the free-will to decide to be my friend and is programmed to need me rather than choose to care about me. Although it just occurred to me that I have 2 dogs and there’s not a whole lot of difference between them and this robot so maybe it’s not as creepy as I judged at first (I can already tell I will be thinking about this for days now).

    I would also love an in-home appliance that could tell me (nicely) that I should consider forgoing that next drink… It would have saved me from many brutal mornings, so I definitely classify it as improving my productivity/efficiency (if your company has not started developing and implementing this tech yet, I suggest they get on it asap – absolutely brilliant idea).

  7. kellywwbcedu · ·

    Early in the article you mentioned two things that caught my attention. The first was that compassion is unique to humans and the other that Nicobo will learn from humans. This made me think about whether or not robots will be able to learn compassion. If they are able to do so, and with the advancements of the physical appearance of them each day, I wonder if one day it truly will be hard to tell whether someone is a human or a robot. Right now we are far from that, but thanks to Moore’s Law we may not be so far for long.

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