Robots As Friends

This is the second article of a three part series focusing on Autism and Technology. There is an open dialogue that involves robots that empathize with us on a deep emotional level. The ultimate goal is to have created machines that serve as companions and friends. Is this the breakthrough technology we have dreamed of – or a slippery slope we will live to regret?

Part II

Sometimes a friend is just a friend. For some people with autism, friendship may not fit the traditional definition. Friends may be limited to the imagination due to social anxieties or the inability to verbalize with another person. Forming friendships for so many on the spectrum is extremely difficult, resulting in minimal social contact outside the home. The introduction of robots into society is not without controversy, as opponents of this latest trend feel socialization skills are actually inhibited from interacting with robots. In addition, some raise objections based on religious and morality concerns citing robots being used for illicit purposes. Importantly, it is crucial to note the intent of this article is to identify the positive outcomes of autistic adult and robot interactions. Surely, we can agree isolation and loneliness are debilitating factors in the lives of elderly and special needs populations around the globe.

Lifestyles continue to evolve in terms of how we communicate, work, and engage in recreational activities. Having access to a network of family and friends is something we all cherish in our lives. For many on the autism spectrum, sensory challenges override the desire to have meaningful social relationships. Subsequently, it is not uncommon to have strong bonds with a pet, a favorite cartoon or television character, or even imaginary friends. Given the propensity towards forming attachments with strangers, or even inanimate objects, having a friendship with a robot doesn’t seem like such a different idea. In fact, there are benefits of having a robot programmed to not only perform errands, but also engage in stimulating conversations. Fortunately, robots can be programmed to be much more than conversation pieces, offering supplementary health and safety advantages.

The needs of the autistic community are as broad and diverse as the people who make up this segment of the overall population. The area of personal robotics is just emerging as a viable option that offers unlimited potential for good in all our lives. The autism community could support its quest for inclusion in the job market, as well having more individuals on the spectrum living independent lives. Having an apartment to live in, while earning a paycheck, is only a dream for thousands of autistic adults who desire more. Robots can remind them when the rent is due, when their medications are about to run out, or even dial 911 in case of a medical emergency.

Moreover, socialization skills and memorization can improve significantly over time through daily interactions with a personal robot, as opposed to a pet. The activity could be as simple as planning a meal or balancing a bank account – the mental stimulation has far reaching implications. Further, having companionship moves an autistic person out of the imaginary realm to the physical reality of forming thoughts or responding to questions.

Robots are causing a lot of angst for some, as there are still so many unanswered questions. What we do know at this point is there is a chance for society to gain from this type of technology. As programmers become more creative and involved in the process, we will inevitably see robots that are more advanced and capable of performing more complicated tasks. This debate will not end in the foreseeable future, as the verdict is still out with regards to accepting robots into our homes and work places. In the meantime, we should all seek to learn more about this technology and how it will impact our future.