Elderly care robots and the future

Progress in technology and in medicine has had a great impact on life span and should not be underestimated. Discoveries of new medicines like antibiotics and the development of advanced diagnostic technologies like computer tomography, have contributed to the fact that we now live longer. Compared with the past, for example, with the 1950s, the life span for men and women has nearly doubled. Simultaneously the birth rates have been falling since the 1960s. Future life span predictions indicate that we can expect this trend to continue. Elderly care institutions are already at their limits regarding the amount of needed personnel. From year to year, the number of elderly people who need care is increasing, but the amount of personnel is stagnating. One can imagine that if this demographical situation continues and no countermeasures are taken, we all will be affected.

Japan, the country where the life span is the longest, currently invests millions of dollars in robotics research. One-third of the Japanese government’s budget is allocated to developing care robots. Robotics seems to be the Japanese countermeasure to the demographic problems mentioned. There are different types of robots that can be engaged in elderly care. Assistive elderly care robots can help bring things to people or turn the lights off, robots help carry people from place to place, and social assistive robots keep elderly people company. These robots are all meant to make the job easier and more efficient for caretakers.

Older persons are more often exposed to social isolation than other adults. When sickness adds to the equation, which is often the case, it can further amplify their isolation and feeling of powerlessness. When we already suffer from personnel shortages in elderly care institutions, it is clear that the amount of time a caretaker will spend with one patient will decrease, and that is only in terms of physical care. There will certainly be little or no time for social care. However, this is very important. There are special techniques that can help a totally withdrawn person to interact with the environment again.

There are currently robots on the market that aim to achieve these goals:

  • Robear, developed by RIKEN Company Limited, assists care-giving personnel by helping them out in the most strenuous tasks like lifting elderly people from a wheelchair into the bed. Such tasks are the cause of lower back pain in care-givers.
  • TASIMO, developed by Honda, is an autonomous assistive robot that can avoid obstacles and calculate its route autonomously. It reacts to spoken and gestured commands and is able to move on uneven ground like stairs. TASIMO is designed to, for example, remind elderly people to take their medicine or pick up and bring things to them.
  • The PARO therapeutic robot, developed by PARO Robots U.S. Inc., helps in socializing elderly people. It is comparable with pet therapy. PARO’s field of activity is mainly a stationary environment where living animals are prohibited for hygienic reasons.

There are concerns regarding social assistive care robots and care robots in general that their widespread use may have negative effects. First there are the safety issues. It must be ensured that such robots do not have a malfunction and, for example, do not crush one’s hand. Technical safety aspects have been standardized in ISO 13482. That means that every care robot used in series must apply to the requirements of that norm.

Second, the opponents of robotics in elderly care claim that their widespread use may totally replace human interaction and so contribute to further social isolation of those people. So far there has been no study done in that field. It is not known what prolonged interaction with robots may do to the human psyche. Opponent claims are not entirely unrealistic. With care personnel shortages and shrinking government budgets, the temptation in the future may be to replace the majority of human care staff with robots. Just imagine: no employment benefits, no sickness rates, and instead an increase in efficiency. This may very well become very attractive for health insurance funds and governments.

Finally there is the factor of rejection from elderly people themselves. Older generations did not grow up with all these technologies. In the past there were no mobile phones, no internet, and no robots. Older people are often scared of new technology. So this extra stress would be counterproductive.

Aldebaran has developed Pepper, the first humanoid robot capable of recognizing the principle human emotions and adapting its behavior to the mood of his interlocutor. That kind of technology may be one step toward eliminating the fear of care robots when they are gently introduced to older people. When a robot shows kindness toward those people, they might accept them more easily.

The trend in care robotics is toward artificial intelligence. Pepper is the precursor of what care robots in the future may become. Pepper already has software modules that allow it to learn from each human interaction. The data is stored in a central database where other robots have access to it. When the benefits of all such robots on the market will be combined and the artificial intelligence aspect is further investigated, we will be able to develop a care robot that could be widely used and more easily accepted by society. The new generation care robot could learn special techniques to bring withdrawn people out of their shell. These techniques are widely used with people who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, and combine touch, speech, in some cases singing, and responses to human emotions.

There is certainly a place for care robots in the future when we find the optimal balance between human caretakers and those robots.

Zuzanna Wojcik

Student at Technikum Wien University

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