Robots, aged care, and emotional bonding with machines


Newsday has an interesting article out titled Independent at any age, examining how the elderly now have increased options to lead independent lives rather than being shunted off into homes. While most of the article deals with the issues such as occupational therapy and visiting programs, the final section moves on to how robots can assist senior citizens to live independently. I was interviewed on how robots are being used in health care generally, particularly in Japan, and quoted in the last section of the article:

“Most of the seniors live alone or are lonely,” said Teruo Sasaki, director of the Chicago trade office of the city of Osaka, which is a robotics hub. “They start to not say anything. If robots can speak to them, they will start answering. ”

Sasaki watched a video of how one robot, stationed at hospital doors, caught a patient wandering out. When told by the robot that she wasn’t supposed the leave, the patient went back in.

Japan’s robotics investment has been driven in large part by the numbers of seniors. The 60-plus segment is projected to go from 26 percent of the population now to 33 percent by 2025. Compare this to the United States, with about 17 percent now and an estimated 24 percent in 2025.

Many Japanese feel that their nation should be self-sufficient in caring for the elderly.

“Rather than having a very large influx of immigrants, they prefer to have robots in their environment,” said Ross Dawson, chairman of Future Exploration Network, which follows the future of technology in society, from headquarters in Sydney, Australia, and San Francisco.

But Japan’s high-speed investment into made-for-seniors robots has raised some debates, including how much human-ness we can take from machines before it’s too creepy.

Dawson said, “You can hire some of these robots and put them in your stall or exhibition stand or something,” he said. “But in terms of looking at age care … to try to pretend that the robot is a person doesn’t help.”

I have written before about robots in aged care in Japan, therapeutic robots such as Paro the seal, Japanese robot otaku, and other similar examples. The point I was making in my interview for this article was that the primary role of robots in aged care – at this stage in any case – is practical, such as dispensing drugs, finding lost objects, calling for help, assisting people to move around, and so on. Many people think of robots as humanoid, but in fact most robots have no need to look like humans, and it is usually not functional to try to do so. There is an entirely distinct application for robots, which is emotional bonding. In this case again, trying to make robots look human makes the task far harder. We find it difficult to build emotional ties with something we can distinguish as a machine, which is trying to look and act human, and failing. However we can definitely build emotional bonds with furry toys, especially if they respond to our stroking and voices in ways similar to small animals. Many people love R2D2 from Star Wars, which is distinctly uncuddly, certainly not humanoid, but endearing in its behaviors and interaction. The whole space of emotional robotics will rapidly evolve, driven initially by the value for the elderly, and soon after in child care and the family home. Clearly robots are not substitutes for humans. Yet before long we will consider it commonplace for people to have emotional bonds with robots.