In many ways, robots rock. They’ve been behind huge advances in productivity in manufacturing such as the automobile industry. Today they mix cocktails, cook, and assist in surgeries. A few years ago I bought a Roomba-like robot that sweeps my hardwood floors and scurries under the bed to retrieve dust bunnies. I love that thing―no more crouching to get at those fuzz balls, and it does a decent interim job until cleaning day. But robots as caregivers for the elderly and disabled? In Western countries with rapidly aging populations, we may not have a choice.
Long-term care and assisted-living facilities are expensive and, anyway, most people would prefer to “age in place,” i.e., at home. No panacea by a long shot, though―aging in place has its own set of financial and human resources issues. The stresses of caring for a family member over long periods are well documented―it can be physically, emotionally, and financially draining. And because it’s hard work, very personal, often unpleasant, and not well paid, finding a paid caregiver can be a challenge.
Facing a workforce shortage, Japan took the lead and has made substantial investments and headway in robot development. There nursing-care robots assist with lifting and moving patients and help prevent injury to caregivers. Europe’s Mobiserv consortium has developed a smart personal-companion robot that prompts for medications, doctor appointments, exercise, healthy eating, and social interaction. Researchers in Sweden developed GiraffPlus, which monitors home safety and keeps tabs on blood pressure and other health metrics. It features a Skype-like interface for virtual visits from relatives and caregivers. In the U.S. robots are increasingly used in physical therapy and rehabilitation after strokes.
Robots hold so much promise for addressing health and housing issues for an aging population, it seems reasonable that researchers would seek to design ones to help the homebound cope with the psychological effects of loneliness. Many are skeptical. Meet PARO and CHARLI, the subjects of my next post in this section.