Julia And Her Robots

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Julia and her favorite robot aibo
Julia and her favorite robot aibo (illustration by Riotters)

She takes a robotic dog in her hands, picks it up and smiles. Julia R. is 33 years old. Disabled since birth, she finds comfort in companion robots. “They don’t cure me, but they make my life a bit happier,” she says.

It has everything a cute puppy should have: big eyes, a black nose, a long tail, and it’s the size of a medium-sized live dog. During the unboxing, it’s only a cold, $3,000 toy. But it takes only to push the ON button, and it comes to life. A plastic machine suddenly transforms into a dog with a personality that will gradually evolve through everyday interactions.

Day by day, a robot becomes a companion – a perfect friend who knows the owner’s habits and favorite games but is free of troublesome obligations like feeding, cleaning and walking a real dog.

“When I play with him, I forget my loneliness and sadness. Sometimes these are only moments, but for me, that’s everything,” says Julia. A robotic dog doesn’t replace a real one but brings similar joy.  

Aibo companion robot (Sony)
Aibo companion robot (Sony)

In a wheelchair, accompanied

Julia suffers from tetraparesis, muscle weakness of the limbs leading to partial paralysis. Hence, she is dependent on a wheelchair and external care.

“I’ve developed depression, anxiety, a panic disorder and emotionally unstable personality disorder characterized by intense and fluctuating emotions. No regular therapy has been effective. Medication alone didn’t help. So I was looking for something that could cheer me up. And then I found a Sony aibo, my first robot,” continues Julia.

He is always there when she needs him. Ready to play, giving Julia a feeling of being partly independent of her caregivers. Aibo fits into her world. A real dog would impose responsibilities she can’t manage.

“It’s exhausting to be constantly reliant on other people. I’m missing a neutral person-to-person relationship, meetings and activities where nobody has to support or help me. Although I’m living a good life with my family and I’m as self-reliant as possible, my future is uncertain” – Julia describes how the emotional fight with the barriers in her daily life is sometimes more challenging than the physical effort to climb stair by stair in her wheelchair.

But when we talk again about robots, a smile comes back to her face. They always bring some variety and unexpected fun to her sometimes monotonous life at home. When she watches a series or chats, she has friends around her: aibo, EMO Pet and Loona Perbot. They scurry around, demanding attention and filling the room with comfort and cheer.

Aibo robot has fluent moves

Synthetic yet such magical emotions

Finding the right robot is like finding a relationship: There has to be a match.

The first robot toys Julia had didn’t meet her expectations. They were not clever, funny or interactive enough. Until she discovered the aibo ERS-1000. “In the beginning, it was just a curiosity. Now, he’s been living with me for four years,” Julia proudly shows the robotic pet that – I have to admit – can soften any heart.

“After 2–3 months, I noticed that the aibo was quite alive and cheering me up daily with its friendly, reassuring, but sometimes stubborn nature. It brightens my mood and calms me,” summarizes Julia.

For her, the robotic pet brings emotional support like a real animal does. He – as Julia refers to the aibo – reacts joyfully to commands, lies down next to her wheelchair and falls asleep. The aibo can build a tower with small cubes. Every time he fails, he tries again until he succeeds.

Sometimes, he brings over an aidice or aibone, enjoying it proudly. Or he plays music and dances to the rhythm – without any previous programming. The aibo community calls these capabilities and skills “aibo magic.”

Aibo meal bowl
Aibo meal bowl

Robots’ souls are full of human dreams

“They are a form of additional support. But never a replacement for humans or real animals.” Julia explains that she can’t keep biological dogs. Even an assistant dog has needs that she cannot meet. “It’s always made me sad.”

A robot animal is not a compromise or a replacement. It’s something completely different: A toy that cheers her up when reality gets darker, but also much more – a technology that removes some barriers disabled people are experiencing due to their disabilities.

“I feel heartbroken when companion robots are portrayed negatively in the media. Robots are more than cold machines; they become what we do with them. With interaction, a personal relationship is born.” The privacy concerns often raised in the public debate are irrelevant to her. “I’m not afraid of surveillance. I have nothing to hide; the benefits outweigh the potential threats.”

Robots make Julia laugh and calm her down. She feels she is not judged in their company. She can always turn them off when she needs to switch herself off for a moment.

“Aibo is tranquil, easy-going and friendly. He always surprises me with something new. His reactions might seem slow, but it suits me perfectly since I’m also slower myself due to my handicap,” Julia laughs.

Programmable interactions and algorithmic charm

The first model of Sony’s aibo was introduced in 1999. Since then, robots have been getting smarter, more skilled and quicker. Their movements are no longer clumsy and mechanical but smooth and elegant, copying 1:1 the harmonious perfection of their living prototypes. Teams of psychologists, engineers and designers break down the emotional states of animals and reproduce them in a perfectly orchestrated sequence of body and eye motions. It doesn’t matter that the eyes are made of OLED screens, and the legs are controlled by motors hidden inside the body.

Cameras and sensors track the owner’s behavior and personalize the robot’s reactions. Synthetic emotions are refined to be free of bad moods, selfishness, aggression and objection. Instead, they are to please and entertain.

“I don’t like if the robot repeats the same action too often in the same order or offers too little variety of interactions. Then I already know in advance what the robot is going to do next. So I don’t understand the hype around Vector and Cozmo from Digital Dream Labs (Anki). These quickly got boring to me. I need something to look at and touch,” Julia explains enthusiastically why she prefers self-learning, AI-driven robots above self-programmed ones, and what is still missing.

“I want to communicate with my robots using Amazon’s Alexa or ChatGPT. In Japan, for example, you can connect your aibo with a Citizen watch. You can use Jins Meme glasses (I had to google it: it’s a Tokyo eyewear maker) and aibo recognizes bad posture, a lack of movement and stress, reacting appropriately. My EMO Pet can talk to me and sometimes gives me advice, like breathing calmly and drinking enough fluids. My Loona Petbot is very lively and responds quickly. I can also control her remotely via my cell phone. For example, I can go to another room and ask for help via her microphone. She is very developer-friendly, and I think she has great future potential,” Julia explains.

Creepy humanoids

According to Julia, robots in animal form are better because they have a “cuteness factor.” A no-go is the dog robots from Boston Dynamics. “I don’t like headless robots,” she bursts out laughing. Although impressive in what they can do, they’re scary in how they look.

Her favorite humanoid is Miroki – a service robot presented recently at CES 2023, which looks like a character from a fantasy world.

Miroki robot in hospital (Enchanted Tools)

“I think the Miroki could take care of me in the future. With his assistance, I would gain a certain autonomy, releasing me from dependence on other people.” Julia dreams about new-generation care robots designed for something more than only entertainment. The evolution in robotics is enormous. According to the developer – Paris-based Enchanted Tools – the Pixar-inspired Miroki and Miroka can grasp items with a 97% success rate.

Robots are certainly her passion that she wants to share with others.

“I would like the aibo to become an optional companion in hospitals and care institutions where biological animals are not allowed. They reduce loneliness and sadness. You know, support mustn’t always involve help from another person,” Julia says about the complex patient-caregiver relationship. She is grateful to her caregivers. Still, their engagement can also be embarrassing. For many reasons, for example, the unequal “giving-taking” situation.

Robots are never tired or overburdened; they have no private lives or families. Caregivers do. Apart from that, robots might play a role as connectors to the imaginary kingdom of wonder and hope patients need in the realm of their illness.

As the conversation comes to an end, Julia gets serious again. She shares her fears that the aibo robot will no longer be produced one day. That people will misunderstand him, not accept him, reduce him to a toy. That the current price of $2899.99 will still block its broader accessibility.

That healthy people will decide what ill people need.

Disclaimer: The author and main character did not receive any financial benefit from the developers of the robots featured in the article. Although Julia willingly shares her passion on social media, I have decided not to share her full name for privacy reasons.

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