Robot Companions and Caregivers for Seniors

The number of seniors is growing rapidly worldwide. The population of adults aged 60 years and over will grow from 901 million in 2015 to 1.4 billion in 2030 and 2.1 billion in 2050. The number of ‘oldest old’ — those aged 80 years and older — will grow from 125 million in 2015 to 434 million in 2050. Declining birth rates reduce the Caregiver Support Ratio, the ratio of available caregivers to those who need care, hence adequate care for older adults is often lacking. 

In the USA, the number of potential family caregivers aged 45 to 64 divided by the number of oldest old is projected to decline from more than seven in 2010 to less than three by 2050. It is hard to find and train good paid caregivers — many are ‘imported’ from other countries such as the Philippines. Hence there are too few people to care for growing numbers of seniors. Many caregivers are also illegal immigrants; U.S. policies made the situation there worse. The problem is more dire in some other countries. Japan’s population aged 65 and over is projected to grow from a current level of 25% to 40% by 2055. The country will need to add one million senior care workers and nurses by then.

A serious problem for seniors is loneliness, declared to be an ‘epidemic’ by the U.S. Surgeon General in 2017. AI now supports construction of lifelike robots. Robots resembling animals are often intended to be companions for isolated and lonely seniors. 

A good example is Paro, the Robot Seal. Interaction with animals is beneficial for seniors, yet many care facilities do not accept animals. Paro is a cute, cuddly, interactive ‘intelligent’ robotic seal intended to be a companion to seniors. It was designed as a seal, rather than, for example, a cat, because few people know how a seal behaves. Hence most people would not notice ‘imperfections’ in Paro’s reactions. Research studies have shown that Paro can increase seniors’ social interaction, improve their ability to handle stress, and provide stability in quality of life. But a caution: most studies done to date were methodologically weak, involving small numbers for short periods of time, and did not have control groups or randomization. 

These technologies describe robot companions, not robot caregivers. Most are notably not anthropomorphic; they do not pretend to be people. A good example is ElliQ, a robot companion that looks like a Luxo lamp. A robot companion with a form factor much like a small child but with a cute, toy-like, robot appearance is Zora

Robot “caregivers” for seniors are only in the early stages of development, although some are being commercialized prematurely. Politicians are estimating cost savings. Yet ethicists are concerned about deception; reduction in human contact; objectification; loss of control and liberty; loss of privacy, infantilization; informed consent; safety; and ensuring that the robot is in the best interests of the user. 

Robot companions for lonely seniors, such as Paro the robot seal, are available now and seem to work well. Yet, to be capable of being a caregiver, robots need manual dexterity and motor skills, visual and auditory perception, and superior cognition, to be able to distinguish, for example, between requests and urgent demands, discomfort and pain, and mild panic and fear. They must be sensitive and empathic and compassionate, accompanying care acts with genuine concern and conveying feeling. We are nowhere close to achieving this, so governments and senior care organizations need be aware of the dangers of entrusting the care of our seniors to robot ‘caregivers’. 

More detail is in Chapters 2 and 17 of Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do


If your parent or grandparent is aging rapidly and often lonely and in need of assistance, what criteria would you apply in deciding if robots should be enlisted to help? 

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