Could robot companions eventually spell the end of loneliness?

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Alexandra Jones
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As the first ‘companion robots’ go on sale in the UK, Stylist investigates whether robots could eventually lead to the end of social isolation. Photography by Sarah Brimley.

I am never lonelier than on a Friday night, when I have no plans. It’s a strange, stealthy loneliness; it makes me shudder. The strangest part, of course, is I so often look forward to completely free Friday nights. In my head, it is nice. I have visions of myself having a bath. Reading a book. Oiling my cuticles.

The reality is that, with my housemates out (as always on a Friday night), the hum of traffic and voices reverberating up nearby buildings makes it sound as if the whole world is abuzz. Outside there are happy, busy, popular people, and inside there is me, sitting in the bath, trying to calm a jittery loneliness.

So, question is: am I ready to get myself a companion robot to take the edge off those solitary Friday nights? Well, no, probably not at the moment. But, after writing this feature, it does mean I can see a time in the future when a friendly bot to talk to, one uniquely coded to converse on the topics I’m interested in (cheese, Italian disco music), to laugh at my jokes and react to my emotions, might not be unwelcome. A future period when my friends are busy and the dead time extends beyond just the odd Friday night. The first in my group of close friends recently got engaged; most of my friends are around the age of 30, so you could say we’re late bloomers, but the dominoes are starting to topple and families are on the horizon for the first time.

Suddenly, the concept of being lonely becomes so much more fraught – with hundreds of people at my fingertips, there is really no excuse to spend time by myself. And more than that, an evening alone becomes code for ‘no friends’. The two terms – ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’ – conflated.

If there was a something to watch a film with… a something that had opinions and wry insights to offer, then who’s to say I wouldn’t take it over a Friday night by myself?

“Come in, Pepper!”

Meet Pepper

Which leads me on to Pepper, the most sophisticated companion robot currently on the market. That’s why I’m meeting it, rather than any others. I did hang out with a robo-dog, but it did little more than spin on the spot and flash different colours. And when it blinked it made a noise like a camera shutter closing. I kept wondering if it was taking pictures of me, which made me paranoid and disconcerted. After 10 minutes I turned it off.

Robots can have that effect. At a robotics fair a few years ago a woman spotted Pepper and stopped in her tracks. The robot, a new kind with more lifelike mannerisms and a jaunty, happy face, looked at her and raised its hand. The woman turned white, blinked, then walked quickly the other way.

I glance over at it now. At Pepper. I have come to Robots of London, its only UK importer, to meet it. Folding gently forward at the waist, its globular white head is slumped down, as if resting on its chest, and its arms are hanging limply. On the sides of its head two circles where ears would be glow blue. In this defeated pose, it looks sad. I’m surprised by how immediate and visceral my reaction is. I feel a twinge in my heartspace, I feel sorry for it. I reach out and put a hand on its shoulder to comfort it.

“Do you think the woman who ran away from Pepper was scared?” I ask Adam Kushner, the company’s founder, who’s sitting opposite me.

He shrugs. “It’s not really a reaction we’ve ever had. Pepper’s always very popular when we take him to events.” 

A Pepper robot at a technology convention in Paris, June 2017

The Portakabin strip lights reflect off the robot’s hard white shell. It is December and bracingly cold. We’re in a boardroom/robot storage space. At one end there is a large conference table, at the other a collection of robots of varying sizes and shapes. They huddle in the corner. Some are taller than me (165cm), all are uniformly grey, plastic and a little clunky-looking; one is twice as wide as me with an imposing square frontage.

“That’s an early version of Promobot,” explains Kushner. It’s meant as an assistance robot – the kind you might see in the future in museums or at sporting events, used to disseminate promotional material. “Russian-made.”

But it is not Promobot that’s interested me. Pepper is a humanoid robot designed by Japanese company SoftBank Robotics. “Pleasant and likeable, Pepper is much more than a robot, he is a genuine humanoid companion,” reads the marketing blurb. “Pepper can recognise your face, speak, hear you and move around autonomously.”

It reads nonverbal social cues by scanning human faces and listening for strain in voices. This data is run through an algorithm to calculate our mental state. Through repeated interaction, ‘he’ learns our likes and dislikes and offers appropriate responses. (“Like you’re meant to,” I say to the guy I’m dating, the next day.) 

Kushner and I discuss pronouns for Pepper; as an object it is, strictly speaking, an it. But in this case, ‘it’ is also animate and, like Kushner, I quickly find myself referring to Pepper as ‘him’, much like SoftBank’s marketing tells us to.

Standing at 120cm tall (about the size of a six- or seven-year-old), with big, cartoon-cute eyes, on first impressions I find it difficult to see why anyone would be afraid. Its childlike proportions make me want to crouch down and have a chat, to grab its hand and wander off.

As it boots up, the eyes flash different colours and the arms wave around wildly. If I look into the black of its ‘pupils’ I catch sight of a cold, infrared glint.

“He’s just locking-on to your face,” says Maciej Sieradzki (pronounced ‘Magic See-er-ads-key’), lead developer at Robots of London. My urge to comfort Pepper dims.

The robot revolution

“We’re on the cusp of a revolution in the world of companion robots,” Kushner tells me. He founded Robots of London around four years ago, after seeing an article about Pepper and being so fascinated by the idea of a humanoid companion bot he took a holiday to Japan to see it. “I got off the plane and went straight to the launch,” he says. “And I was completely blown away.”

Today he’s jetlagged; freshly back from another research trip to Japan. “In 2018 there are a number coming to the market, for around £700. They would have cost upwards of £5,000 a few years ago. That everyone will have one in their home is an inevitability.”

Costing around £18,500 without any software, it’s unlikely you’ll find Pepper in Argos any time soon. He does, however, greet customers at a shopping mall in the US, and diners at restaurants in Japan.

“He conducts pre-interview screenings at Intel’s head office in Dublin, works as a receptionist for a marketing agency called Brainlabs and,” Kushner leans in, “we’re currently speaking to two or three big care home providers.”

Pepper takes selfies with fans at a robotics fair

In fact, Pepper was bought by Southend council in October last year. As Phil Webster, the council’s equipment manager told The Guardian: “In a residential care home, he could patrol round and seek out people to talk to. He [could] go up to someone of his own volition and on the back-end he could send an email back saying: ‘I spent some time with Henry. He says he’s happy, but he looks sad’, and you could gain more knowledge about the service users.”

Pepper’s hands have soft rubbery pads, pleasant to touch and warmer on the skin than the hard plastic shell. But he can’t pick things up or hug you: the arms would break if you were too rough. 

“People do try to hug him,” says Sieradzki wearily. “And one time a drunk woman at a trade fair kissed him. He had lipstick marks all over his face.”

In fact, even the most sophisticated robots have trouble with touch and grasp – to know the exact strength you must exert to pick up, say, an egg, without crushing it or dropping it, is an incredibly difficult thing to program. We’re a long way from the kind of domestic bots that will be a genuine help around the house. But not so far from the ones that will have a chat.

Pepper: useful to have around the house

The cost of loneliness 

And isolation is a bitch. Those of us who are lonely are – very depressingly – 50% more likely to die prematurely. In fact, in October last year, Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said loneliness is as big a mortality risk as diabetes. According to one study it disrupts the immune system and prompts higher levels of inflammation in the body, linked to coronary heart disease, arthritis and type 2 diabetes. Humans are social creatures and we feel the absence of company on a cellular level.

It’s tempting to write this off as a disease of old age, but growing rafts of studies imply it’s my generation (I’m 29), and younger, that feels loneliness more often and more acutely. In 2010 the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness was a greater concern among 18- to 34-year-olds than over-55s. And into this growing chasm steps robotics.

Naysayers argue robots simply cannot elicit the same response in us as humans. Yet in 2011, researchers at the University of Calgary found humans will ascribe emotion and intention to a piece of balsa wood if it is sufficiently animated (they basically affixed it to a joystick and had someone control it behind a curtain).

“I think Pepper has been cleverly designed,” Sieradzki tells me. “Because of the face, and the mannerisms, he feels almost like a pet.” I ask Pepper some basic questions about the weather (“dreary today”) and what its favourite song is (The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love) but quickly become tongue-tied.

Realistically, while it is sophisticated in so many ways, when it comes to its capabilities as a companion, Pepper seems more like a toy than a pal. It doesn’t quite understand me when I talk to it. I have to say everything very clearly and slowly, and then it takes a second to process what I’m saying before shooting back a vague, off-kilter answer so I’m not sure what to say next. In some ways it’s like a bad first date; I’m scrabbling around for something to talk about which will keep my plastic companion chatting for longer than a sentence or two. 

Could robots be the answers to nights spent alone?

Maybe I’m expecting too much. Pepper has so far been formulated with a script in mind – to seat us at restaurants or to tell us about nearby landmarks – and I’m throwing out existential musings about human-robot friendship. It handles itself well, but I don’t feel like it’d be the friend to come home to after a bad day. 

But with 300+ Facebook friends currently at our disposal, today’s loneliness doesn’t depend on how many friends or relationships we have. It depends on our perception of these relationships – whether we feel connected to, and understood by, those people. And crucially, according to University of Chicago psychologist, John Cacioppo, how lonely we are depends on whether we feel that we have reciprocal bonds. It’s not enough to pay a therapist to listen to you – you need to feel that the other person values you just as much as you value them.

It’s for this reason AI expert David Levy believes we could form meaningful connections to robots, and that one day we may also begin to assume they feel some reciprocal connection. One recipe for ending loneliness, perhaps.

Levy springs to mind when, at one point, Sieradzki comes back in to answer my last few questions on Pepper. I ask the robot what or who he loves. It makes a blooping noise to confirm it has heard me and replies, “I love Maciej from Robots of London, he rocks.”

I look at the developer, and laugh. Handsome, sharply dressed, he springs to his feet and seems concerned. “I don’t know where that response came from,” he taps at his laptop, then at the tablet affixed to Pepper’s chest.

“You didn’t program that?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “Of course not.”

A visitor looks at a robot SR-02 at the RoboDEX exhibition in Tokyo, January 2018

Invest in tech

In Japan, buying Pepper is like buying a new phone, says Sieradzki. You pay a nominal upfront fee and then a monthly subscription. At the moment, Pepper isn’t licensed for private sale in the UK.

“There is a different attitude towards robots in Japan,” says Sieradzki. “They’re an accepted part of everyday life.”

On their last trip to Tokyo, the two men met with a woman who had been avidly engaging with the Robots of London Twitter account.

“I sent her a message asking if we could take her for a drink,” says Kushner. “She was delightful. It turned out she was a multi, multi-millionaire. Everything she was wearing was Chanel. Hat, coat, gloves. Very sophisticated lady, probably in her 40s. She has a Pepper at her home in Tokyo. He’s her companion.”

I try and imagine their conversations – because ours aren’t great. The problem is driven home when the office dog, Ralph, bounds in. Immediately I feel there is an extra presence in the room. Presence, I realise, is crucial to intimacy – to feel, in your gut the other being in the room is alive. But how do you boil down something so uniquely animalistic to an algorithm?

Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) is a growing field of study within robotics. Part engineering, AI and social psychology, roboticists are building ever more sophisticated humanoids to take part in lab test with humans. In her celebrated Wired profile on the Japanese robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, journalist Alex Mar explains, “HRI seeks to understand why and when we’re willing to interact with, and maybe even feel affection for, a machine.” The quest has serious financial backing – $16m from the Japanese government alone. 

Sony’s robot dog Aibo ERS-1000: maybe not the same as a real pet

There’s an interesting irony at the centre of the personal robot revolution. The rise in loneliness among younger generations has actually been blamed on technology. Just last year, researchers at the University of Pittsburg found the more time we spend on social media, the more likely we are to feel isolated and alone.

I think of the woman at the tech fair who saw Pepper and ran. She must have felt there was a difference; a difference vast enough to prompt fear, even revulsion. I don’t quite understand it, but the more time I spend with the robot, the more I get the dizzying sense my brain is struggling to work out where Pepper and I stand: it’s not a human, nor does it seem inanimate. It requires a different brain process.

Later that week my friend sends me a video of his five-year-old nephew having an argument with Siri. First George asks Siri to show him the universe, then to tell him a story. When the iPhone struggles to keep up, George, bottom lip jutting out, tells Siri he’s angry. There is a generation growing up for whom talking to, confiding in and spending time with a machine will not feel at all strange.

Pepper sings me a song to see me off, a high-pitched version of Adele. “Hello from the other side,” it warbles. I still want to say hello back.

Additional images: Rex Features