Well, this is creepy.
Toymaker Hasbro has taken it upon itself to solve the problem of senior isolation by creating “Companion Pets,” which is a less horror film way of saying “mildly robotic cats.” These cats do not even appear to occupy the uncanny valley. They look stiff and plasticky and move in about three mechanical ways. But maybe they could occupy your grandmother, and wouldn’t that be nice?
At this juncture, I should clarify that “Companion Pets” is apparently not a hoax. The toy’s website includes the following statement: “HASBRO’S JOY FOR ALL is proud to support Meals on Wheels America and its efforts to reduce senior isolation and hunger as a sponsor of its Spark the Movement event.” So, if this is a hoax, the humour’s pretty damn dark. While we’re on the subject of things that are real, senior isolation really is a big problem. As British Columbia’s Ministry of Health notes:
Social integration and participation of older adults in society are frequently seen as indicators of productive and healthy aging and it is widely accepted that social support has a strong protective effect on health. However, an increasing amount of seniors may be at risk of being socially isolated or lonely. This may be due to a number of factors such as increased likelihood of living alone, death of family members or friends, retirement or poor health. With current trends such as encouraging seniors to live longer at home or in the community, a highly mobile society and fewer children per family, the issue of social isolation takes on a new importance.
But come on. I’ve seen Robot & Frank. I know how this story ends:
Technologies designed to combat isolation often feel a bit off because they’re trying so hard. If you can’t be with a living thing, they seem to imply, why not be with something that’s almost living. There’s something to this idea, but it can easily cross the line into creepiness. You might be okay with friendly robots or robotic cats, but what about blowup dolls? Probably a step too far. Which is not to say that isolation cannot be countered using technology. Said technology does not, however, have to be an exact replica of that which it is supposed to replace. At a time when people are living longer and further apart, Skype and social media are valuable. Moreover, tablets offer sufficient affordance for elderly users. Fake living creatures aren’t always the answer.
Or, you know, you could just visit your relatives. That would be nice. (And your mother asked me to remind you that you never write or call. Do something about that?)
Still, it could be worse:
Find out more about Hasbro’s “Companion Pets” on its website.