“Be as smart as a puppy” is the advice that Matt Jones of BERG has for robots of the near future. You can see that design principle in action with MIT Media Lab’s Boxie robot, but a robot developed in Japan called Babyloid takes it a step further. This thing is cute and literally nothing else. It’s designed to be cute, and to react to human interaction in a simple menu of cute ways, toward no other purpose than being more cute. Why? To prevent lonely elderly people from getting depressed. It’s essentially a therapeutic Furby.
Except that might be giving Babyloid a bit too much credit. The robot is a fluffy blob of pure unadulterated neoteny: it coos, squeals, cries, and that’s about it. The catch is that you can’t control when it does any of these things–you can only react to it. Or, to rephrase, you can only take care of it. That’s where the therapeutic value, apparently, comes in: the cute, helpless Babyloid will give a senior citizen whose selfish kids haven’t visited in a while something to get out of bed for.
That may sound a bit grotesque–couldn’t a pet fill the same role?–but you have to admit that the Babyloid’s design is completely irresistible. This is basically the Platonic ideal of “cute”: two plinky, wide-set eyes above a smiling mouth (“to avoid the creepiness a realistic baby face can have,” says its creator, Masayoshi Kanoh) on a fuzzy head with tiny, floppy arms and legs. The thing is packed with sensors that can sense movement, temperature, pressure, and light, so when it decides to cry, you can rock it to sleep and get a revivifying rush of oxytocin in return.
According to New Scientist, Kanoh’s initial tests at a retirement community found that Babyloid was effective in reducing depression when users interacted with it for 90 minutes a day in short seven-minute sessions. But one has to wonder how much the sheer novelty of the device contributed to the effect. Sure, Babyloid is adorable, and adorability is a powerful thing. But unlike an actual living thing that requires tender care, the Babyloid’s behavior is fixed and limited, and it’ll never grow. Being as smart as a puppy may get you a long way in human-machine interaction, but when it comes to creating bona fide relationships–and harnessing the positive health benefits of same–an actual puppy is probably going to trump any robot, no matter how cute.