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Sharing Mana‘o

In 1966, with the debut of the original “Star Trek” television series, the crew of the USS Enterprise drove an unintended but unmistakable wedge between my cousin and me. Mark and I are a year apart in age, and we spent much of our early childhood together, often recreating our favorite TV shows with the neighbor kids. We hid in bushes to ambush each other, as in “Combat!” or, in a sillier mood, patrolled our neighborhood on tricycles, imagining ourselves to be the cavalry of “F Troop.” But the show we most enjoyed, both on TV and in our fantasy play, was “Lost in Space.” That is, until Capt. Kirk beamed himself into Mark’s living room.

My cousin instantly became a Trekkie, forsaking the Robinsons and Dr. Smith for what he said was a more exciting, less childish universe. As the only girl in our play group, I had to be Lt. Uhura, although I did play Capt. Kirk whenever our friends couldn’t come out, because Mark always wanted to be Mr. Spock. But even when I was seated in Uncle’s armchair — that is, the bridge — I wanted to be “Lost in Space” again.

It was the relationship between young Will Robinson and the Robot, I’m sure, that touched my heart and sparked my imagination. The Robot was Will’s protector and friend, much more so than the selfish, cowardly Dr. Smith. As an only child who once wrote to Santa Claus to ask for a baby brother, I was enchanted by the idea of a robot companion, programmed with the best qualities of humanity (including a sense of humor) and none of the worst.

Half a century later (and even beyond the future portrayed in the TV series, which was purportedly set in 1997), my dream is becoming reality.

When a human friend directed my attention to an online article in The Japan News titled “Bringing Robots Home Eases Loneliness,” I thought it was going to be one of those outrageous, tabloid-style articles about high-tech adult toys. It wasn’t.

The photo below the headline shows an elderly woman beaming at what appears to be a crude (but strangely cute), drastically stripped-down version of the Pillsbury Doughboy atop a desk. PaPeRo i is just under a foot tall, with cameras in its large buglike eyes and a smile-shaped speaker across its midsection. It has been 87-year-old Setsuko Saeki’s live-in companion for the past year, as part of an experiment by the city of Saijo, in Japan’s Ehime Prefecture.

Each morning, when Setsuko enters her living room, PaPeRo i greets her by name and asks if she slept well. The widow says she couldn’t help but feel excited the first time the robot spoke to her. “No one had called me by name and said good morning for a long time.” Now it tells jokes and trivia tidbits, along with answering simple questions like “What time is it?”

One of 10 elderly residents who received the robot free of charge for a three-month trial, Setsuko was enrolled in the project by her son, who lives in another city and learned about it on the Saijo city government website. Several times daily, PaPeRo i asks, “Setsuko-san, may I take photos of you?” and sends the pictures to her son’s smartphone and to her health care manager. Mother and son also exchange voice messages through the robot.

Skeptical at first, Setsuko now says, “I don’t want to be parted from my PaPeRo.” Her son agrees that it gives them both peace of mind, so he has elected to continue using the city’s robot rental service, which now costs just under 60 U.S. dollars a month, after a $212 installation fee. Saijo officials say the citizens’ response to the program is about 90 percent positive, with users saying their loneliness has been eased and their families relieved of much anxiety.

I can see myself in 20 years with my own PaPeRo i, which is bound to be even more sophisticated by then. Right now, my smartphone wakes me up with, “Hi, Kathy” and the day’s news headlines, but it can’t make my coffee or bring me breakfast in bed. I’m pretty sure the Japanese will have that and more figured out by the time I’m in my 80s.

Dear Santa, since you never did bring me that baby brother . . .

* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.