A robot to care for you in old age

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In the not too distant future robots may play a role in the care of senior citizens. Researchers in the field of artificial intelligence have long dreamed of creating human-like intelligence in machines and empowering them to perceive their environment and take actions that solve problems. Robotics has been used for years in a variety of jobs across manufacturing and is even being employed to assist in surgical procedures. Given the growing numbers of seniors across the globe, a little help from our mechanical friends might ease the burden on caregivers and improve the quality of life for those cared for.

How would you feel about interacting with a machine rather than a human being when it comes to addressing your daily activities? I admit my first reaction when thinking of a robot caring for me in my later years was not necessarily a positive one. Robots can be a bit scary. My perspective is the result of many years as a science fiction buff, and the robot was not always such a nice guy. More often than not, the mechanical man somehow caused a variety of problems for the humans it interacted with.

But not all robots are bad. Some are being deployed to offer assistance living at home. Smart Homes, a company based in the Netherlands, has designed a program to help seniors live independently. A helpful robot named Hector that resembles a big walking and talking smartphone provides reminders for everyday tasks such as taking medications, returning phone calls and compiling grocery lists. In addition, Hector can detect falls and respond to verbal commands.

Perhaps a robot could also assist with day-to-day tasks such as retrieving objects for those whose mobility is limited. Voice activated commands are becoming commonplace in our smartphone use. It seems like a reasonable and useful extension to apply voice commands to the realm of the robot.

A big part of the future success of robots will be their acceptance by the humans under their care. In Japan robots have been around for a long time with a history that includes everything from tamagotchis to transformers. You would expect Japanese seniors to be reasonably comfortable when it comes to the idea of robots in their daily lives. However, according to Ruth Campbell, a geriatric social worker at the University of Tokyo, many elderly people see robots as impractical for the tasks they need help with including bathing and dressing. Adding complicated technology that requires training and even supervision is not going to make interacting with a robot very attractive.

Cynthia Breazeal, director of the personal robots group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, is working on building personal robots that are socially intelligent and interact and communicate with people in more human-centric terms. In her TED talk, "The Rise of Personal Robots", Breazeal explains the benefits of building a robot able to interface on a more human level. Breazeal and her team found if robots are designed to use the same body language and nonverbal cues that people use, they tend to be more readily accepted. These cues are used to judge things like likability and trustworthiness regardless of whether the subject is mechanical or human. People behave like people even when interacting with robots. So if we view robots similarly to how we view people, chances are better to establish a quality interaction.

Robots and their care of the elderly is clearly a work in progress, but it is intriguing to consider the possibilities. A robot that could respond to human cues and provide care and reminders for the elderly would help relieve family members of the huge burdens and expense of elder care. Such a helper might improve your quality of life and potentially extend your independence as you age. While some people will probably always prefer the care of an actual person to a robot, we are getting closer to a point when you might have the opportunity to judge for yourself firsthand.

Dave Bernard is the author of "I Want To Retire! Essential Considerations for the Retiree to Be". Although not yet retired, he focuses on identifying and understanding the essential components of a fulfilling and meaningful retirement. He shares his discoveries and insights on his blog Retirement-Only The Beginning.



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