The term “companion” is used in computer science metaphorically. What is implicit in the metaphor is the envisaged long-term use of something instead of just an incidental or irregular use. The necessary but not sufficient condition to talk of an “artificial companion” is therefore an interactive computer application – embodied as a robot or as a figure on screen, which is designed to perform personalized services in daily life on a regular base for a human individual.
„Technical systems of the future are Companion-systems – cognitive technical systems, with their functionality completely individually adapted to each user: They are geared to his abilities, preferences, requirements and current needs, and they reflect his situation and emotional state. They are always available, cooperative and trustworthy, and interact with their users as competent and cooperative service partners” (Wendemuth/ Biundo, 2012: A Companion Technology for Cognitive Technical Systems, p. 89; SFB Transregio 62 project).
A proposed classification
Three main services of companion technologies can be distinguished: monitoring services (e. g. control vital signs), personalised services (physical, cognitive and social assistance e. g. stand up and walk assistance, agenda reminding and telepresence services) and companionship services (e. g. affective conversation with a virtual agent). Even if most of the systems can practically execute combinations of these services, the logically distinction allows a classification of the projects by their view of companion technology. Here a classification is proposed in companion system as (1) Guardians, (2) Assistants and (3) Partners/ Friends.
(1) Companions as Guardians
This group of companion systems focuses on monitoring services. The GUARDIAN ANGELS project claims on their webpage to invent ‘zero-power’ wearable micro devices. The main function of these devices is to monitor physical and physiological parameters with an awareness of environmental threats and the emotional condition of the user (e. g. blood pressure, hydration level, stress, air quality, information for blind persons). In order to exchange information about the user they shall seamlessly communicate with each other and with computational gateways (according to the vision of the internet of things).
The approach of the GUARDIAN ANGELS project includes a view on companions as computational permanent devices that operate invisible in the background but provide the user with a constant stream of information or cause alerts when detecting anomalies. Like the Victorian chaperon (Wilks 2009) they accompany and supervise the user while monitoring the health or environmental status. This group of companions has a strong link to AAL home systems in the manner that safety and control applications are main objectives (e. g. sensor based emergency alarm, central control of home electronics). When physically embodied as robots the ability to navigate autonomously in the home environment is added. If the system is extended by AI capabilities the continuing collection of data can be followed by an instant analysis to recommend specific actions for the user.
(2) Companions as Assistants
Assistants are personal helper, who monitor the actual conditions and provide personal services (cognitive, physical or social) in advance. In contrast to Guardians the user is enabled by the companion to do things, which she/he is otherwise restricted to. The emphasis within this group is not on supervision but on enabling technologies (like a butler rather than a chaperon). Here companions are seen as assistive technologies with social behaviour building an open-ended relationship (SERA). “Thus, it isn’t sufficient anymore for (domestic) robots to perform useful tasks or to have useful functions. Domestic robots also must be able to perform them in a socially acceptable manner” (Correia et al. 2008: 4, LIREC).
The most common assistive service concerns cognitive support like reminding services (agenda planning, medication reminding, drinking protocol), memory games and therapy attendance. Thus in the COMPANIONABLE project companion robotic systems are seen as therapy management platforms. The mobile robot “Hector” gives verbal remembrances and recommendations like “I am afraid you forgot to switch off the oven!” or “I can see you are bored. How about doing a little of brain training?” (CompanionAble poster 2009). Conversational abilities are used for the purpose of effective disease self-management (KSERA, Pol et al. 2010).
Apart from cognitive support assistive services can be performed in a social or physical manner. Artificial companions are seen as communication devices to improve social inclusion and reduce the sense of loneliness (e.g. “Giraff”, EXITE, Cesta et al. 2010). The objective is to “keep the user linked to the wide society and in this way to improve her/his quality of life” (ALIAS, Rehrl et al. 2011). Most physical services are stand up and walk assistance (e. g. “RobuWalker”, DOMEO, Sarr 2011 or the “Friend III” robot wheelchair with intelligent task and motion planning, FRIEND, Martens et. al 2007). If the system is equipped with a robotic arm it can grasp and carry objects in addition (e. g. “Care-O-Bot 3”, ACCOMPANY, Graf et al. 2009). In this way robot companions give daily life independency to people with physical limitations.
(3) Companions as Partners/ Friends
With the connotation ‘Friend’ artificial companions are seen as conversational vis-à-vis, artificial playmates or mutual partners. Herewith the emphasis shifts from monitoring and assistance to companionship services, as the para-social relation with the technical artefact becomes the main target. This technology focuses the personal interaction (communicative and fun related features) more than the personal services (functional features).
These types of companions have a wide rage of emotional expressions (through voice, mimic and gesture) while they are tracking the users emotional state. For example the SEMAINE project invented virtual agents for conversational interchange. The so-called “Sensitive Artificial Listeners” are programmed with different characters and individual behaviour e.g. the polite “Poppy” or the more aggressive “Spike” (Douglas-Cowie et al. 2008, McKeown et al. 2010, SEMAINE). Companions are seen as artificial personalities for a daily chat about everyday matters and personal feelings.
Artificial playmates (e.g. “iCat”, LIREC, Correia et al. 2008) rely on personification technologies too, but focussing on fun and games. With speech and emotional face expressions the companion provides emphatic feedback while playing games. The gaming dimension provides an ideal context for exploring the human-companion relationship (LIREC, Correia et al. 2008).
Furthermore games are suitable for cognitive stimulation and the transfer of knowledge and skills, such as health care related robots include games in their pre-programmed features too. The third aspect of the companion vision as ‘Partners’ is the mutual care concept: “By providing a possibility for the human to ‘take care’ of the robot like a partner, real feelings and affections toward it will be created” (HOBBIT, Lammer et al. 2011). The social robot is intentional imperfect and behaves rather like a clumsy dog than as a perfect butler servant. With this approach the acceptance of robot assistances shall be increased.