A group from New York University (NYU)’s Interactive Telecommunications program has come up with an intriguing idea that seems to have struck a chord. Their “Needies” are soft stuffed toys with microprocessors and wireless technology that not only vocally request attention from the people around them and respond well to being petted and held, but actively compete between each other for attention. Jealous Needies may shout out “me, me, me!” or even “throw him!” if another Needy is being held. A video interview shows the Needies in action.
This reminds me of Paro, the Japanese robot seal, which responds to affection (but without the jealousy). It has successfully been tested with autistic and handicapped children and with elderly people, who can respond by becoming more social and interactive with other humans. Other robots are being used for similar therapeutic applications based on human/ machine bonding. While the Needies are intended as novelty toys, there is no question that people will will increasingly form emotional ties with robots. Tamagotchi was just the beginning. When robots are cuddly, responsive, and can speak, real bonds will be formed. A robot nanny that children will love will be here in a basic form in the next few years. Of course it would terrible if people left robots to bring up their children. But emotion-focused robots can and will play a positive role in play, care, and society.