Artificial Sentience

“Robots That Care” by Jerome Groopman was an eye opening accumulation of testimonies and stories of nearly sentient mechanical beings aiding in the healthcare field. It told of robots “resembling Starwars’ R2D2” that aided in the recovery and recuperation of stroke victims, autistic children, and other people with learning disabilities or physical ailments. Positive reinforcement is a great way to encourage improvement. If you perform a task correctly, you get rewarded. It is like training a dog. Come. Sit. Good dog. Have a doggie biscuit and a scratch on the head.

Humans are often just as easily pleased. Hey, Jim, great job on that Matheson account, I’m giving you a raise. Jim is going to keep doing his job well because he saw the result of his good work. Well occasionally all it takes to make someone feel supported is a “Good Job!” and a high five. But that begs the question, cant human nurses and assistants do that just as well as the robots? Well, yes, but there are foreseeable drawbacks to that. Failure. Rejection. Judging looks. I am pretty sure C3PO was incapable of looking at you disappointedly. I hate being viewed as inferior, or insufficient for a task because I fail at it. I hate the thought of someone else seeing me fail at something due to my innate competitiveness. I assure you that 98% of all people would answer yes to the question, “Does it bother you to fail at something in front of your peers over and over and over?”

That’s where the robot comes in. Robots can’t judge you, or say you aren’t good enough, or “Hey man, you really suck at that.” Unless they are programmed that way. Which is just cruel, and nobody would do that in an environment that is meant to be supportive and positive. I think robots have a much more valid use in the medical field than most of us have given them credit for. These stroke patients will naturally go for their strong hand to do a simple task, because subconsciously they don’t want their assistant to see just how weak and inept they truly are with the other hand. Whereas with the robots, the novelty and complete neutrality and objectivity may provide the patient with what they need to try. Provide them with the confidence they need to try and fail. And fail. And fail. Again and again until they finally manage to get that block into the correct position.

People care so much about what others think, about how they are viewed, that even if we love something, we may not do it because we aren’t good. For example, I go bowling a lot. Like two or even three times a week. I always invite my roommates and some other friends because I enjoy their company. They never want to go. And their reasoning is: “I’m terrible at bowling, it won’t be fun.” They are afraid of being bad at something. When I finally manage to drag them along, they drink a bunch of beer and have a blast despite not bowling well. But they initially wouldn’t even try in the first place because they knew they would do poorly.

The beer is their robot. Their crutch if you will. Alcohol has long been regarded as “Social Lubricant” or “Liquid Courage.” The beer gave them the courage to try and fail, and not care what others were thinking.



  1. Good analogy.
    This is one reason that I didn’t think about when considering robots as rehabilitation devices. I guess I do something similar when I write papers. Usually there are plenty of people that are around me when I’m writing papers that could proof read for me, but I don’t ask them to. It’s easy just to go through word and have spell check fix everything. That way I don’t have to let anyone read my writing, even though that’s the whole point.

  2. my answer to your fist question is yes. i am firmly a part of that 98% that you were speaking of. Whenever anybody looks at me with anything but a smile on their face, i immediately start questioning myself myself. Is it something that I’ve done? this is something that i have said? With robots these issues will never come up. As a child I personally know that my fascination with robots was unmeasurable. I personally believe that children should be introduced robots and that they should be used for their aid.

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