Is the Future of Robotics in Caring For the Elderly?
As we move into the 21st century, it is becoming increasingly apparent to robot-developers around the world that the arena of caregiving is one in which the future of robotics could blossom.
With an increase of elderly among populations around the world, many countries find themselves struggling to provide the funds and staff necessary to care for this increasingly prevalent demographic. Some believe that Robotic aid is needed here more than any other area. And quickly.
Many countries who realize this are pouring serious money into the development of such robots. For example, last year in Japan, the health ministry began a program designed to promote the development of nurse robots that can perform certain tasks like gently lifting and moving patients in hospitals.
credit: RIKEN-TRI Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research
In Sweden, researchers have developed an assistant called "GiraffPlus," a humanoid robot that serves as a vacuum cleaner, standing mirror, a video-chat android that stands in for family time and doctor visits, and a health metrics monitor that can measure and record key variables such as blood pressure and temperature.
Elsewhere in Europe, a number of companies and universities, funded by the European Union, have been collaborating on a project called "Mobiserv" to develop touch-screen humanoid "social companion" that will offer people in need with reminders about appointments and medications, and that will promote frequent social activity as well as healthy lifestyle choices.
While these developments are revolutionary, there are ethical considerations needed when replacing real human caregivers with their robotic counterparts. Although this type of robot makes sense economically on a macro scale, the idea of robot caregivers can hit pretty hard on that soft spot that we all have for our elders, and the fear of isolating them further from real social interaction.
Amidst the highly abstract and theoretical debate buzzing around the morality of robotic carer development, doctor/writer Louise Aronson breathes a breath of fresh air onto the perhaps overly debated topic.
Dr. Aranson, a highly sought after geriatrician who treats seniors through the UCSF Housecalls Program for homebound patients, and author of "A History of the Present Illness", believes that the development of good caregiver robotics is something worth fighting for.
In her New York Times Opinion Piece on the topic last weekend, Dr. Aranson appeals to the case of one of her elderly patients, who remains unnamed. "Like most older adults, she doesn't want to be "locked up in one of those homes." says Aaronson. "What she needs is someone who is always there, who can help with everyday tasks, who will listen and smile. What she needs is a robot caregiver."
"That may sound like an oxymoron." she adds "In an ideal world, it would be: Each of us would have at least one kind and fully capable human caregiver to meet our physical and emotional needs as we age. But most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all."
Aronson also reminds us that "Caregiving is hard work and, more often than not, it is tedious, awkwardly intimate and physically and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes it is dangerous or disgusting. Almost always it is 24/7, unpaid or low wage, and has profound adverse health consequences for those who do it. It is women's work and immigrants' work, and it is work that many people either can't or simply won't do."
If you look at what these robots would actually do, they clearly wouldn't completely replace the entire profession of care-taking. They would supplement certain 24/7 functions, and take care of those tasks that are more intimate of nature. Those who continue to work as caregivers could thus spend more time working on more effective and more meaningful aspects of the job for all parties involved.
Of course, people enjoy helping and spending time with elders. They have lived the longest, are therefore the wisest, and often the most gentle. But spending time with elders is not what Aronson is referring to when she writes about "caregiving." She is talking about that person who comes in to clean soiled beds, gives sponge-baths to those who cannot stand, helps the weak use the toilet, and cleans them up afterward. Robotic caregivers could alleviate the need for relatives and loved ones to carry out these tasks, thus freeing up their time for more enjoyable interactions with the person they care for.
Ultimately, the brightest future for caregiving for the elderly would be one of collaboration between humans and robots. Robotic caregivers would supplement certain 24/7 functions, and take care of those tasks that are more intimate in nature. Those who continue to work as caretakers could thus spend more time on more meaningful aspects of the job for all parties involved.
So, for all of us skeptics out there, automatically ready to turn down all things robotic, please take some time to consider the many advantages that robotic caretakers hold.