I, Robot: Are Seniors Doomed to Enjoy the Company of AI?

January 24, 2019

Photo by Daniel Cheung from Unsplash.com

 In the world as we know it, being a senior means a lot of problems. Your whole body is aching, it is becoming more difficult to remember what was in yesterday’s series, and even your children fail to visit you often, as they are busy building careers. As of this moment, there is no aging culture as such. For all those who are about to celebrate their 70th anniversary, life is going to become very different from what it used to be.

What is the problem with elder care?

Seniors usually have nothing to do, i.e. they do not feel they can still be useful and have a purpose in life. It has a profound negative effect on the body and the mind, as studies show. But making seniors’ lives worthwhile is a goal which seems practically unachievable on the global level. Now that the world population is aging fast, especially in developed countries, there is another problem that needs to be dealt with right now – what will happen to the elderly when there are too many of them? Even today, there are countries that already face this problem. One of them is Japan, a country boasting longevity. It is expected that the number of the elderly living there will have increased by 2025 to such an extent that there will be around 1 million caregivers lacking. In the U.S., the trend is the same: by 2050, the percentage of those who are older than 65 will have grown by the whopping 26%.

There are three major problems that the elder care system in its current form faces.

  • Aging population. There are not enough caregivers. In 2010, there were seven caregivers for every senior above age 80; by 2030, it is expected to have dropped to 4 to 1.
  • High costs of care. A private room in a nursing facility generally costs around $93,000.
  • Poor quality of life of seniors. Not all long-term care facilities comply with the standards set for safety. Besides, many seniors do not have an opportunity to talk to their children and grandchildren often, and the same is true of peers – in short, the social aspect is often neglected.

In an attempt to try to prepare for a situation when the supply of caregivers falls short of meeting the demands of an army of seniors, researchers focus on the technologies that could help take care of the vulnerable. These are elder care robots.

Can robots help?

Of course, few would claim that robots can help solve all the three problems. No AI can compare to a human being, and talking to a machine is not the same as talking to a person. But there are some aspects which robots can handle.

To function as helpers in everyday life of a senior, a robot should have a great navigation system, be equipped with an impressive range of sensors (to recognize their owner, monitor heartbeat, etc.), and know how to interact with humans to ensure their communication is not impaired – after all, seniors are usually not that tech-savvy, and ease of use is an important thing.

So, what can robots do for seniors?

First, there are robots designed for doing chores. Even the famous Roomba can be considered a robot for seniors, as it enables them to vacuum the floor without human assistance. But there are many more ways AI can make an elderly person’s life more convenient. For instance, reminding to take pills is one of the options that is used in most robots for seniors. Among other applications are medical alert systems that monitor heart rate and can detect falls and report them. Advanced robots can bring a remote or pills from another room. Researchers are currently working on robots that can cook for their owners and do other chores. However, there is not enough support from the government, and start-ups often have to restrict their research to one particular field. Stanley Innovation is working on mobile platforms for robots. Vecna Robotics are eager to develop a multi-purpose humanoid robot for the military, healthcare and wherever else it may come in handy. The government does invest in service robot development, but there is a lot to be done until the first elder care robot capable of doing various household chores becomes widely spread.

Second, there are robots designed to improve communication with caregivers and make it more convenient. For example, there is a robot called Dinsow. It is placed beside the bed and used for making video calls, listening to music, playing games and displaying other content. Here is what it looks like.

 

 

Another robot aimed at facilitating use of digital content is Elli-Q. It is used for video chats and games; the gizmo can remind you to take medication, give advice on when to exercise, and serve as your companion.

 

 

Third, there are robots designed to help you relieve stress. Meet Hasbro’s Joy for All toys. These are robotic pets that react to hugs like real pets do. They do pet-like movements and can meow/bark back. These toys are relatively cheap (you can get one for $100). Real pets are undoubtedly a better option, but since not everyone can afford taking care of a cat or dog, a furry toy can be a way to relax.

 

 

If you do not like puppies and kitties, opt for PARO, a robotic seal which, as one study showed, can be effectively used as a biofeedback device and reduce anxiety and stress in patients suffering from dementia.

 

 

There are more unusual solutions that are considered therapeutic. One of these is Qoobo, a Japanese pillow with… a tail. It wags its tail, and actually it is everything it can do, but the manufacturer claims this detail can “heal your heart”.

 

Culture matters

Not all seniors are of the same origin, and taking care of an Indian senior differs from taking care of a Japanese one. Cultural differences determine preferences, and new technologies are emerging to fill this gap. Meet Caresses, a system which can be integrated in almost any robot. It was developed by AI experts at Örebro University. Cultural skills are what robots lack, and Caresses enables machines to adapt to the culture of the person it is used by. It is currently being tested by elderly participants from England and Japan.

What is expected?

The advent of the Internet of Things and other technologies connecting various devices and systems together (including smart home systems) also contributed to further development of elder care robots. It is expected that more systems will be employed to assist the elderly in everyday life, provide telepresence to enable a senior to talk to his or her loved ones when they are away, and monitor their health. Last year, a team of MIT researchers introduced a wireless health tracker, which may well be used in elder care robots.

But whatever the future capabilities of robots, one thing remains the same: no machine can become a substitution for a human being. AI can help us take care of the elderly when we have no opportunity to do it, but it does not mean surrounding our senior loved ones with advanced technologies can solve the problem. They need you, and even the best furry robot cannot give them the love you can share with them.

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