You lie in the hospital bed, your heartbeat weak, your breath faint. Old age has conquered you: You can feel throughout your body that you are going to die, and you resign yourself to the inevitable. You let your eyelids fall for a final time, preparing to pass on to the next life, when suddenly, a little white robot appears at your bedside, hovering over you.
"Hello," the robot says to you, gently caressing your forearm with its cold, metallic hand. "I am the Last Moment Robot. I am here to help you and guide you through your last moment on earth."
"I am sorry that your family and friends can’t be with you right now, but don’t be afraid. I am here to comfort you."
So begins an art installation by Dan Chen, which invites visitors to check in a faux-hospital, slip under the covers of a replica hospital bed, and receive the end-of-life comfort from a 'bot that Chen has dubbed "Last Moment Robot." The Last Moment Robot lovingly strokes the expiring patient's arm, assures the patient, in a pre-recorded speech, that he or she is not alone, and then, after expiration, reads off the time-of-death for the doctor.
You can watch the Last Moment Robot take care of a (fake) patient, as well as deliver its last-words-you-hear-on-earth speech, below:
Chen intends for his piece -- part of his Masters thesis at the Rhode Island School of Design entitled "File>Save>Intimacy" -- to make visitors consider the implications of a more deeply connected, technology-reliant society.
From his thesis, which is available online and features a lot more mind-bending conceptual robots:
The process of dying is probably the most vulnerable moment of a human life – a moment in which one seeks the reassurance of human connection. In this installation, human presence is replaced with a robot, questioning the quality of intimacy without humanity.
The Last Moment Robot takes the idea of human replacement to an even more extreme scale. It allows for robotic intimacy technology to be reevaluated. The form factors are also being challenged: instead of mimicking the real, the Last Moment Robot’s objective is to allow the patients to experience the paradoxical sensation of knowingly interacting with a placebo treatment.
Chen writes elsewhere that the Last Moment Robot was inspired by Paro, the plush "therapeutic robot" used in Japan to comfort the inflicted, especially patients with dementia and Alzheimer's. While Paro is an adorable stuffed seal, however, the Last Moment Robot is a jungle gym-like construction of metallic tubes, rods, and hinges, thus enabling that "paradoxical sensation of knowingly interacting with a placebo treatment" Chen was going for.
There are no plans to mass-produce the Last Moment Robot or sell anything like it to hospitals, Chen told CNET's Leslie Katz; the Last Moment Robot is simply intended as a work of art, a thought experiment, a provocation.
So, no, don't expect to see a "Last Minute Robot" in a hospital any time soon -- an art museum, perhaps, but not a hospital. And if Chen does decide to permanently retire the Last Moment Robot, we have to wonder: Who will comfort the Last Moment Robot in his last moments? Who will be Last Moment Robot's Last Moment Robot? The conundrums of our times.