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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: People like people more than robots

Rika Kayama

At a gathering of psychiatrists, I listened to a slightly unusual talk titled "Robots and Psychiatric Medicine." In the field of psychiatric medicine, it is said that dialogue training using robots is already underway for children and others who have trouble communicating.

When I heard this I found myself thinking, "Wow, what an age we're in. Maybe we'll soon have no need for human psychiatrists." But then a researcher spoke up during the presentation.

"People like people."

"Hmm?" I thought, my attention piqued. The screen showed a news presenter, and the researcher continued, "When you watch the news on TV, don't you ever think that we don't need humans to read out the news? You could just have words on the screen, or footage taken at the scene. But no matter how much science advances, we still look at the news presenter and want to hear that person read out the news, right?"

I think that really may be the case. I now speak to my smartphone and tell it, "Please wake me up at 7 a.m. tomorrow." The smartphone replies, "OK, 7 a.m." But as I listen to the answer, I somehow imagine a person there speaking. Even though I know that's not the case, some part of me is trying to think, "A human is doing this for me."

This is why there is so much focus on the development of robots that have faces and humanlike expressions. One might think that children who have trouble communicating with others might prefer a cushion-shaped robot, for example, to a humanoid robot, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

People like people.

When you think about it, this may be true. Though today's communication methods are so advanced, world leaders do not just email each other, but travel long distances to see one another face-to-face, shake hands and engage in important summits. When major earthquakes and other disasters occur, even if you can confirm the safety of your family and friends on your smartphone, you still think, "I can't feel at ease until I actually see their faces."

Nodding at the words of the researcher, I thought, "Come to think of it, I haven't seen that person for a while. I wonder how they're doing?" and recalled the faces of several friends. With some people, communication tends to end with an email exchange, but in the future I think I might even invite them out for dinner. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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