I grew up in the 80s. In the 80s we were concerned about the following:
- The eruption of Mt. St. Helens – this was the first time we turned to powdered milk and face masks
- The Chernobyl disaster – that was the second time… Mmmm… Tang
- The Spaceshuttle Challenger disaster – no powdered milk, just a classroom full of shocked 4th graders
- The Iran/Contra Hearing – interrupting summer programming and tearing us away from whatever Bo & Hope were doing on Days
- The hole in the ozone layer – this seemed to be caused by Aquanet, the refrigerator and the air conditioner
- Just saying “No” to drugs
- Not talking to strangers – this means you, latch-key kids!
- Whether there would be a booth in the non-smoking section, and whether you’d have to walk through the smoking section to get to it
- When your cable provider would finally carry MTV so you could actually watch videos
- Drunks driving oil tankers
- And one of the more disgusting worries: baby seals being clubbed to death for their skins
I grew up in Oregon. For those who don’t know where it is on the map, you can find it on the Pacific Ocean, between Washington and California. You’d be surprised how many people I meet that aren’t quite sure where Oregon is, though they seem to at least correctly assume it’s “West”. Oregon is regarded as being both a place for redneck, fishermen and lumberjacks who don’t like gays, the watershed or the spotted owl; and as a place full of damn dirty hippies who voted for Mondale.
But Oregon is also the home of the Oregon Coast, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Seaside Aquarium, the Washington Park Zoo (now called the Oregon Zoo), the Oregon Wildlife Safari, and a town called Seal Beach. What I mean to say is, I saw a fair number of seals in my time. They seemed like slightly pushy, aquatic dogs. Barking at you and clapping water in your direction if you didn’t toss that sardine. Swimming right up to the glass to eyeball you and then show off a bit. So to think that someone could club and then skin a baby seal was truly appalling. And, for some reason, oft-discussed in elementary school circles. I don’t really remember why.
But, we set to work protecting baby seals, whales, and all the rest of our beloved ocean mammals. They even made a Star Trek movie about it.
(Alright, enough of that!)
So now, baby seals are available to you, in robotic form, to fill the empty void in your soul where love, affection and loyalty ought to be.
It’s been available in Japan for several years, but now the company has created a Florida-based unit, Paro Robots U.S. Inc., to sell the fuzzy creature to places like nursing homes and hospitals. The robot, named Paro, is marketed as a therapeutic device that can help comfort people who have dementia, autism or other problems that can lead to social isolation.
Apparently, the robot seal can ‘feel’ pleasure – when you pet him, he makes the pleased, squealing sound of a real baby seal. It also shivers when you first hold it, until you begin to soothe it – which no doubt contributes to the bond people feel to the ‘pet.’
But the article also makes this fascinating observation – because most people don’t ever interact with or see a seal in real life, they have low expectations for the look and feel of, and interaction with a robotic seal. We do know what cats and dogs are like, so it’s harder to bond with a robotic one of those.
Which seems like an apt observation of humanity in general – while we might fear the unknown, we can also very easily adore the unfamiliar, the untouchable, the out of reach. We yearn from afar. We fall in love at first sight. We link eyes across a crowded room. We covet thy neighbor’s wife, or husband. We take snippets of information about complete strangers to us and begin to feel that we have a relationship with them (it’s called being a ‘fan’). Only when we discover that the object of our arm’s-length affections is not quite as we imagined, do we begin to sour on it or him or her. Real relationships are hard – they take care, feeding, shelter, warmth, safety, nurturing, acceptance, struggle, compromise, disagreement, and even punishment in order to be successful. They are long-term propositions. It’s no different for owning a ‘real’ pet – a living, breathing dog or cat requires our affection, and gives back positive reinforcement (well, dogs do, anyway). But it also requires boundaries, training, a sense of belonging, and someone to take on the responsibilities of the administrative aspects of the relationship.
What I’m saying is this: batteries and soft fake fur, long eyelashes and pre-recorded sounds of baby harp seals mewling at their mothers make for a nice ‘fake’ pet. Still, Paro the baby seal robot is ‘real’ enough to be loved. And for some, enough really is enough.
Let’s bring it back to the robotic, shall we? I find myself fascinated and repulsed by the notion that we’re going to give a shivering, squealing animatronic seal to people who are already a few sandwiches short of a picnic. But why would that be? Why am I being a hater of robot pets? Turns out, there is a theory about robotics and animation that is referred to as the Uncanny Valley.
The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.
For the best explanation of this phenomenon, watch this clip: