PARO, CHARLI, Pepper, and the debate around robot caregivers

PARO, CHARLI, Pepper, and the debate around robot caregivers

In a 2014 New York Times article, “The Future of Robot Caregivers,” Louise Aronson, associate professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote about her difficulty in parting with her elderly “house call” clients. She talks about staying “much longer than I should” because she can’t gracefully disengage from a clenched hand or doesn’t have the heart to cut off a reminiscing patient mid-story to take her leave. Ms. Aronson notes that one client has a faraway daughter (who may, or may not, call regularly―she doesn’t say), twice weekly caregiver visits, a friend who checks in now and then, and regular calls from Friendship Line volunteers. And she concludes that in too many cases, “It’s not enough.” That what people like this need are robot caregivers. For this Aronson drew criticism―more about that later.

PARO is a robotic medical device in the guise of a baby harp seal that responds to touch and speech. The brainchild of Professor Takanori Shibata of Japan, it is designed to help people with dementia and learning disabilities; research is underway in Europe and Australia to test how effective PARO can be. Dr. Penny Dodds, a nurse lecturer practitioner at the U.K.’s University of Brighton’s School of Health Sciences, has studied how dementia patients interact with PARO at the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Their research shows that PARO “lessens stress and anxiety, promotes social interaction, facilitates emotional expression, improves mood, improves speech fluency.” You can read more details of the findings here.

Stateside, we have CHARLI―Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Artificial Intelligence. Engineered by students at Virginia Tech and the Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at UCLA, it is the first untethered, autonomous walking humanoid robot built in the United States.

Now back to the outcries Louise Aronson’s article precipitated. At the time Andrew Leonard applauded University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, assistant professor Zeynep Tufekci for saying that “caregiver robots are both inhuman and economically destructive.” As to the economics, especially given the current focus on living wages, few would argue against paying caregivers $15 an hour and more. That would help solve some of the problems―articulated just today by Jennifer Levitz in The Wall Street Journal. Ms. Levitz talks about the trials of Stan DeFreese in caring full-time for his 87-year-old mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and can’t be alone or do things like dress herself or cook.

Allowing seniors to age in place at home where they can be cared for by unpaid family members is seen by policymakers as a way to help reduce reliance on public programs such as Medicaid. But Levitz tells us that many lawmakers and social service providers are alarmed because of the significant strain seen on family caregivers. Not only is aging in place preferred by most of the infirm and their caregivers for obvious reasons, but Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that “if we didn’t have them [the family caregivers], we couldn’t afford as a country to monetize their care” or match the emotional component only family members can provide.

The strain of the job and the demographics―a large number of baby boomers will soon need care and fewer people / family caregivers in the generation behind it―have focused lawmakers on finding solutions. The Journal article notes proposals for a national Peace-Corps-like “Care Corps,” development of a “national family caregiving strategy,” and tax credits for eligible family caregivers. I’m heartened that the government is now focused on the problem. I also think that well-paid, non-family caregivers would be a way to relieve the strain on family caregivers: Higher wages would attract more motivated and qualified individuals which, I assume, would also help address the potential abuse families fear.

But I also can’t wait for the engineers and venture capitalists to find a way to make robot caregivers affordable for the average person. Used properly and ethically, I’m not sure these helpers are as “inhuman” as Ms. Tufekci claims. They show great promise for a range of purposes. But right now PARO is way too expensive to be a consideration for the vast majority of people who might benefit from one―it costs over $7,000, which is why it is only practical in institutional settings. Much more affordable is Pepper, SoftBank Robotics’ human-shaped, $1,600-ish robot that is touted as being able to perceive emotions. Pepper currently acts as a cashier in some Pizza Huts in Asia and will soon be cheerfully explaining how Nescafé products work in over 1,000 Nescafé stores in Japan. Pepper has been evaluated for applications in a Japanese high school and the manufacturer says it has been designed to be a “day-to-day companion.”

It is just not reasonable to expect the ideal of a loving human who would be available and able to meet all our needs as we age. It’s not that the robots are coming―they are here. I hope that smart academics and policymakers with minds like those who invent these things can switch from fretting mode to figuring out ways to make technological advances work well for all of society. Next time I’ll share my own idea for helping the homebound lonely and disabled.