Guest Blog by Deborah Gale, Gerontologist, writer and commentator

UnknownIf you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll remember the Jetsons.  If you haven’t, here’s your primer.   The Jetsons was a cartoon series set in 2062. It debuted  in 1962 and Rosie was the Jetsons’ robot-maid. She controlled the chaos in George, Jane, Judy, Elroy and even the family dog’s orbit.  A reject from U-Rent A Maid, Rosie was a humanoid robot, an assistive device with a frilly apron and a huge heart. Rewind to 2014 and we’re already living in an assisted world – far earlier than the Jetsons predicted. From remotes and smart phones all the way to driverless cars, the robo-genie is out of the bottle.

The question is, will this robo-boost benefit our older generations? Will it make the next generation of older people independent or isolated? In the UK over 50% of over 75 year olds who live alone say their TV is their main company. A further 17% reported they have contact with another person less than once a week. It’s hardly surprising that neuroscientists have found higher levels of epinephrine, the stress hormone, in the morning urine of  “lonely people”. Rent-a-Maid Rosie had a heart… it begs the question, could a relationship with a machine be better than nothing, or no one, at all?

It’s not a huge concern at this juncture – but it ought to be.

There are concerns: fears about inauthentic relationships, particularly with respect to end of life care.  Our acceptance of introducing human-like but not actually human helpers might qualify as an infringement on personal dignity. So, the next step should be targeted attention on specialized ‘bots that will be able to assist and care for older adults.  They are already successfully aiding the medical industry and this could be a logical next step.

imghumanfutureThe business of robotic engineering and the business of caring do represent two distinct cultures needing to comfortably co-exist. Since 2000, pioneering surgical procedures using robotic arms and a surgeon operating from a console have allowed dexterity beyond what’s humanly possible. A recent study showed that trained physicians were outperformed in diagnostic accuracy when pitted against artificial intelligence algorithms by a staggering 41.9%. Add to this the dual bonus of tremor reduction and faster recovery times for patients – there’s not much to dislike about these robots!  Plus, it’s common knowledge that most people never do any rehab exercises after they leave the hospital or physio appointment. But wait… this won’t be a problem anymore. We can have virtual avatars carrying out routine checks on patients, as well as advising them on proper technique! Even better, these “relational agents” are at the forefront of medication management, “watching” patients take the right meds.

Fifteen years ago, an entertainment robot pet, AIBO, was brought to market by Sony. Research was conducted in Japan on its use in a care home for dementia patients. AIBO was regarded as a total success in terms of increased communication with patients, as well as performing duties better than a real animal with respect to… ahem… cleanliness issues. Success notwithstanding, AIBO was discontinued in 2006 and customer support ended last year. Hmmm. Now, Toyota is working on a full range of HSR, Human Support Robots. There is a Robot Era project in full swing in Tuscany and Sweden. All three projects support independent living for older people.

Older people without cognitive decline have high demands for a high quality of life. They need help with basic functions including cleaning and shopping, which robots of the future will be able to perform, but human intervention will continue to be fundamental. The extent to which robotic innovations will assist or replace humans in the future remains unknown – as are the long term costs, but will the reduction in human labour be seen as a worth the expense?  After all, what if a robot IS capable of caring behaviour: are they so different from a well-trained carer, a taught actor who expresses compassion and concern as part of their job? How comparatively artificial is empathy imbued by human designers in a dutiful robot?

In the meantime, no one can predict their own ageing fate. Ageing is not a homogeneous process and care needs are highly personal and fluctuating. Normal function is lost unevenly and inequitably, not suddenly and over the course of a lifetime. Sophisticated assistive care is, at present, available to the few: the deep pocketed and participants in optimum conditions, in controlled settings. Until sufficient interest, improved access and affordability gaps are closed, solutions loom just out of reach. Boomers, like me, are watching their own ageing parents and wondering. The boundaries of what is achievable to enable independent living are being pushed and we all want that.

Get a move on Rosie.

For more information, the BioCentre on Ethics held a teleconference on the Use Of Robotics and the Care of Older Persons on April 11, 2014, Deborah was a panelist.

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