At a SXSW panel this year, Australian roboticist Rodney Brooks was asked what he would focus his research on if he was a fresh 25-year-old artificial intelligence expert trying to get in the game. Without hesitation, the chairman of Rethink Robotics and the former director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab said that anyone seeking a”financial hit” should get into elder-care robots. That industry, Brooks said with confidence, is about to take off. Someone, after all, is going to have to look after all these Boomers.
More than a quarter-million Americans turn 65 every month. Within the next 30 years it’s estimated that 75 million Baby Boomers will reach retirement — millions of people who will eventually need to be taken care of as their health inevitably becomes more delicate. Unfortunately, it’s a fact that prices increase while quality of life decreases — it costs around $90,000 a year to live at a Skilled Nursing Facility and around $25,000 per year to live at an Assisted Living Facility.
The goal of roboticists is for robots to be able to care for these people and — if everything works out — bring them joy before their final obsolescence.
If robots are integrated into the lives of the elderly, their roles will be as varied as the needs of their human overlords — medication regulation, health-condition monitoring, daily activity scheduling, and companionship are all tasks that are considered integral. In studies, elderly participants have said what is more important to them is to have a nurse-like figure who is a companion and physical helper. Human caregivers say they want robots that will make sure their clients are safe and want a built-in system that will alert them to emergencies. But while it’s easy to make a wish-list, the actual integration of robots into elderly communities is proving to be more difficult.
That’s largely because different people have different reactions to robots. Numerous studies have concluded that robots built with a human-like figure are ideal, because an anthropomorphic design creates a sense of empathy necessary for integration. Yet if the robot looks too human, seniors react with fear and skepticism.
“It is clear senior citizens want robots to play passive and non-confrontational roles,” wrote Penn State co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, S. Shyam Sundar in a recent statement on his work. “Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots.”
A number of studies from the Human Factors and Aging Laboratory have found that older users are more likely to accept and adopt robots when they are helping with household chores and manual labor. Even if the elderly subjects don’t have a lot of experience with robots, they can’t and won’t deny help from automata when it is offered. Functionality is the key; when seniors understand what robots do, they view them positively.
Robots are also more accepted by adults who have been exposed to them. A recent study from Penn State found that people who had more exposure to robots in movies felt less anxiety about interaction with a robot in real life. The more sympathetic the participants felt about a robot in a movie, like Disney’s Wall-E, the more positive they felt towards robots.
Yet studies are still mixed regarding the lengths that the elderly are willing to interact with their robot companions — some want to interact, and others just want to utilize them as performance-directed machines. As of now, this is evidenced culturally. While American engineers are exploring the uses of SmartCanes, Japanese engineers are creating giant, bear-like hospital nurse-robots.
“The Japanese want robots to be like them,” researcher Alexander Libin told Slate. “We want things we can control.”
As of now, the American elderly are more comfortable with robots like Roombas — which the CEO of its manufacturing company iRobot, Colin Angle, considers to be the most “successful elder-care robot ever created.” But Angle also understands that Roombas can’t pick up a human and move them from a wheelchair to a bed, like Japan’s Robear or Twendy-One.
“God help us if we don’t figure it out,” Angel told MIT News when talking about the need for new elder care robots. “Because over the next 20 years the ratio of people over the age of 65 to the number of people under 65 is going to change rather dramatically.”
If robots are to really help the American elderly, who are not quite ready to embrace a humanoid in-house companion, they have to be slowly introduced. It’s true that Roombas really are the key to successful robot integration — observations of the disc-like vacuum in the home shows the elderly that robots are friends, not foes. Emphasize to your parents now that robots are the miracle housecleaners they’ve always wanted, turn Robot & Frank on the television, and you’ve done your part in avoiding $90,000 fees when the time comes that you need some help taking care of them.