Your grandmother is notoriously slow to answer the phone; sometimes she simply won’t answer at all. She’s octogenarian and somewhat infirm, and with each unanswered ring your concerns increase. Has she fallen down? Hurt herself terribly? Hopefully she’s just out with some friends. Either way there’s nothing you can do. But what if you could get in touch with her 24-hour carer: a robot. As the ageing population grows, so the population of young carers decreases. In the countries where this poses a problem, robots are being tested as one of the solutions.
Japan, where the over-65s make up more than a quarter of the population, has become a hotbed for these robotic inventions. The range of robots being developed is huge. From Paro, the six pound mechanical baby seal designed to act as a therapeutic companion, to Robear, the Riken Institute’s 140kg nursing care robot that can lift disabled patients from their beds.
“One of the most common injuries for nursing staff is back injuries,” explains Rajesh Gupta, Computer Science and Engineering professor at UCSD’s Contextual Robotics Institute. “In assisted living there’s quite a lot of heavy lifting. A robotic assistant would help, even just in terms of physical brawn.” Robots can also fill an administrative role, telling elderly patients what’s on the TV schedule or what time dinner will be served — or the even more advanced models can coach them through exercises.
The most advanced robot currently on the market is Pepper. The sleek, three-wheeled humanoid robot is alleged to understand patient’s emotions, as well as schedule their diary for the day. It was initially built for use in the stores of telecom company SoftBank, but the Japanese public were so intrigued by the droids that 7,000 of them have now been sold nationwide; a small number are being tested as potential helpers in nursing homes.
“The sleek, three-wheeled humanoid robot is alleged to be able to understand your emotions, as well as schedule your diary for the day.”
The company that actually built Pepper, French robotics firm Aldebaran, specialises in care-bot research. Their 58cm tall interactive robot Nao has been known to teach elderly aerobics classes, and Romeo — their research-only bot — is the result of many years of collaboration between laboratories across Europe. Romeo was built with legs, in place of Pepper’s wheels, and is the most humanoid of the bunch, but not the most reliable. Instead of waiting for Romeo to improve, Aldebaran are testing their developments using Pepper.
“Within the last two weeks, Pepper has started being used in a retirement house in Kawasaki,” says Rodolphe Gelin, Aldebaran’s Chief Scientific Officer and head of the Romeo project, who says the main motivation for taking robots into environments like this is to keep elderly people safe. “Robots could improve the safety of the person by reminding them to take their medicine or to drink water when it’s hot,” he says. “It’s very simple cognitive assistance.”
This begs the question, how do they differ from a computer, or even just an app? “The point is that the robots can physically go to the person,” says Gelin. “That’s what elderly people have told us they liked so much about it.” And it shouldn’t be underestimated what a difference such a thing can make. Unlike an impersonal phone alarm, Pepper approaches patients to let them know it’s time for their pill, or most importantly to remind them they haven’t spoken to any real people all day. It’s a humanistic quality that feels both heartfelt and eerie.
Although Pepper’s current capabilities are mostly admin-related, that won’t be the case for long. At the beginning of the year, Aldebaran began collaborating with IBM’s artificial intelligence platform Watson, which allows them to take information gathered by their robots and turn it into something more helpful. “Our plan is to have the robots living with the person everyday, learning their habits,” says Gelin, “because if the robot knows the way a person behaves, it will be able to detect any small changes very quickly.” If they are sleeping a little bit longer or walking a little bit slower, Pepper will be able to report these changes to a doctor. Pair it with one of Toto’s medical sensor-filled toilets and a full medical could be achieved each day.
It’s undeniably useful. “The fact that we cannot see ourselves from all angles on a regular basis is a limitation we all have,” says Gupta. “So robotic assistance that could monitor your private space would be an obvious improvement in care.” This is where the robots start being able to do things that humans can’t do, not to mention things that older people might not want humans to be doing.
“There are many activities in healthcare that are of a private nature,” says Gupta. “That’s the point where you want the robots to actually act like robots.”
This doesn’t mean that older people are keen to be coddled. Aldebaran’s research has actually found the opposite. “When we were discussing how they wanted to use the robots, the elderly people told us something very important,” says Gelin. “They told us ‘we don’t want the robot to do what we can do for ourselves.’” The motivation for this request, he says, came from the film Wall-E and the obese people it predicts Earth’s population becoming. “The robots were so important in their lives that they became fat and lazy, because they didn’t need to do anything themselves. That’s exactly what people don’t want.”
What they do want is independence. Moving to a retirement village is not an attractive option for the baby boomer generation and it probably won’t be for us. But that doesn’t change the fact that every seven seconds another person turns 65. This leaves a lot of lonely people scattered across the world, many in the countryside where public transportation is scarce, and many with children who are busier, and more selfish, than ever before. Robots can’t solve this problem, but a few of them are trying.
The most integrated robot among older adults is Paro, the baby seal. It looks like a large plush toy, but this uffy machine has enough arti cial intelligence capabilities to respond to its name, develop a personality based on interactions with its owner and even whine and squirm when it isn’t getting enough attention. Though this may sound farfetched, Paro has proven in various environments to reduce stress, depression and even loneliness.
“We found that using Paro in a group setting could reduce loneliness compared to a normal activity, like crafts or bingo,” says Elizabeth Broadbent, associate professor of psychological medicine at the University of Auckland. “We had two groups that interacted with Paro and one that did not. The ones that did not had the highest loneliness scores.”
Medical benefits have also been observed, with patients feeling less pain during chemotherapy sessions, decreased blood pressure and dementia patients behaving calmly without heavy doses of psychotropic drugs. Now 80% of Denmark’s local governments are using these fluffy robots in state-run nursing homes.
“We even tested the impact of Paro compared to a dog, and we actually found that people had better interactions with the robot,” says Broadbent. Not only that, the robot also pushed those interacting with it to communicate more with each other. “We think that’s because it gave them something to talk about.”
“I was just struck by this complete mismatch between the technology and our human purposes. Why were we encouraging her to speak to something that literally has no chance of ever understanding?”
The positive benefits make sense; pets have a longstanding reputation for making people happy, and Paro brings the same companionship with none of the hassle. The only maintenance required is inserting the electronic pacifier into its mouth to charge it. If man’s best friend is a dog, then man’s grandad’s best friend might just be a baby seal.
It’s difficult to know if the same level of companionship could be experienced with a less fluffy model, but during Broadbent’s research with other robots, older adults in care still formed a connection with more service-focused bots. “People do tend to anthropomorphise the robots to some extent,” Broadbent says. “When we pick up the robots at the end of the study, we put them in a cardboard box, and the participants get quite distressed because they don’t see the robot as just an object. They recognise they’re not alive, but they still see them as some form of social being.”
This bond that forms is entirely one directional, but is that a bad thing? Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, thinks so. “For many years I brought robots that were designed to be companions to the elderly to old age homes,” she says, “and because these robots are designed to give the impression of being sentient, the elderly people were fooled into thinking that the robots cared about them.” By giving the elderly something to talk to that can’t listen or understand what they’re saying, Turkle thinks we are losing our human integrity.
One older woman Turkle encountered in her research had lost a child, and she told Paro the story, thinking it could understand and comfort her. “In fact, she felt that she had a communion with him to the point that the robot needed to be comforted too because it too had experienced sadness,” says Turkle. “And I was just struck by this complete mismatch between the technology and our human purposes. Why were we encouraging her to speak to something that literally has no chance of ever understanding? These technologies have not known a human life, so there is no way that they will understand what it means to lose a child.” Human compassion is one thing that certainly cannot be undertaken by a machine, and if we ask it of them, it reflects badly on us.
“There are traditions of the old visiting the young and the young visiting the old,” says Turkle. “Why are we not being more supportive of keeping those conversations alive instead of throwing technology at it?” And it’s true, we shouldn’t be tempted to replace ourselves with robot companions, no matter how cute or helpful they may be.
In an ideal world, regular visits to elderly relatives would be standard practice and towns and cities would be built to accommodate the needs of older adults. Public transport would run frequently, cheaply and on even the most winding country roads. But the fact is that change like this, so reliant on governments, occurs at a snail’s pace. But the consensus seems to be that therapeutic robots will be commonplace in five to 10 years, making them a potentially helpful tool to at least temporarily improve what is currently a far from perfect system.
“From what I have seen, older people are excited about any kind of technology that will help them be more independent,” says Broadbent. “Older people don’t want to be a burden, so any kind of technology that will keep them safe and let them live in their own homes, they’re all pretty enthusiastic about it.”
To explore the subject of ageing we teamed up with The Powerful Now, an IDEO + SYPartners initiative poised to creatively redefine ageing as a path of continual growth instead of decline. Together we wanted to explore the ways in which health, money, work and communities will exist in our future, and initiate discussions to find radical new solutions.