THE ROBOT IS SMILING AT ME, his red rubbery lips curved in a cheery grin. I’m seated in front of a panel with 10 numbered buttons, and the robot, a three-foot-tall, legless automaton with an impish face, is telling me which buttons to push and which hand to push them with. Touch seven with your right hand; touch three with your left.
The idea is to go as fast as I can. When I make a mistake, he corrects me; when I speed up, he tells me how much better I’m doing. Despite the simplicity of our interactions, I’m starting to like the little guy. Maybe it’s his round silvery eyes and moon-shaped face; maybe it’s his soothing voice—not quite human, yet warm all the same. Even though I know he’s just a jumble of wires and circuitry, I want to do better on these tests, to please him.
The robot’s name is Bandit. We’re together in a tiny room at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California, where Bandit regularly puts stroke victims through their paces. They’re very fond of him, says University of Southern California researcher Eric Wade, who has worked with Bandit and his predecessors for five years. The stroke victims chitchat with Bandit, chide him, smile when he congratulates them. “People will try to hug the robots,” says Wade. “We go out to nursing homes, and people ask, ‘When’s the robot coming back?’”
Bandit is one of a growing number of social robots designed to help humans in both hospitals and homes. There are robots that comfort lonely shut-ins, assist patients suffering from dementia, and help autistic kids learn how to interact with their human peers. They’re popular, and engineered to be so. If we didn’t like them, we wouldn’t want them listening to our problems or pestering us to take our meds. So it’s no surprise that people become attached to these robots. What is surprising is just how attached some have become. Researchers have documented people kissing their mechanized companions, confiding in them, giving them gifts—and being heartbroken when the robot breaks, or the study ends and it’s time to say good-bye.