Are robots the solution to help our seniors?


Robotics is a rapidly developing field, and many companies like to show that they are moving forward quickly. Tesla with his robot Optimum, Boston and his acrobat Atlas or even Figura and his intelligent humanoid. This is the visible part of the robotic iceberg. There is another, necessarily less known to the general public: the robots used as life assistants or emotional support for the elderly.

This article published in Nature examines how these robots entrusted with a social mission are accepted by the elderly and what are the limits of their acceptance.

Robots and the elderly: a sometimes complicated relationship

Robots are proving to be promising companions for the elderly, especially those with certain forms of dementia. Studies like that of Lillian Hung, creator of the IDEA lab at the University of British Columbia, demonstrate the effectiveness of robots like Paro. This is a cute robotic seal toy that is used to reduce negative emotions, promote social interaction and improve the mood of patients.

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Some robots go even further by acting as caregivers, reminding users to take medication or manage light exercise programs. Ryan, for example, is a humanoid companion robot created by Mohammad Mahoor, an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Denver in Colorado. Ryan was created in 2013 and refined in its third version in 2020 to ” reduce social isolation in people with early onset dementia or depression by engaging them in conversation “.

However, the use of robots in elderly care raises some concerns. Clara Berridge, an ethicist at the University of Washington points out the priority some seniors place on human contact over robotic interaction. He also emphasizes that robotization should in no way mask the real shortage of personnel in healthcare facilities.

If we are going to invest in aged care, I want more staff in the facility so they don’t die alone “, he declares.

Lillian Hung’s opinion also agrees with this. Robots could provide that a temporary solution to alleviate loneliness and isolation, but they should never replace human interaction. ” For an elderly person who is frail and has difficulty expressing himself, the robot does not judge ” explains. ” It offers unconditional presence. No matter what they say, he always likes to listen ยป continues.

Promising technology, but obstacles that remain

The potential of robots as additional helpers is definitely there. However, obstacles still remain before we can imagine their widespread implementation in aged care infrastructures.

For example, some robots experience difficulty performing certain complex tasks, such as navigation in the home environment. Those gifted with voice recognition may also have difficulty understanding instructions. These problems represent significant barriers to their use. In 2022, a meta-analysis led by Clare Wu, who studies dementia prevention at University College London, did not find enough evidence to definitively say that robots improve the quality of life of patients with this type of disease.

Other questions remain and are ethical. Should users be deceived when their cognitive abilities are insufficient to believe that robots are human beings? Is it acceptable to prioritize investment in robots over adequate funding for human care? These questions cannot be put off.

That’s the last hurdle development costs, necessarily very high. The development of the humanoid Ryan, for example, cost $6 million. The nursing homes Mahoor has worked with cannot afford to buy it. While Ryan is slated to rent for $1,200 a month, aren’t we in danger of seeing these robots evolve exclusively in already privileged environments?

In a nutshell, there is no tomorrow that we will see hordes of robots roaming around medical facilities. They may be used more widely in the future, but more research is needed to determine their long-term effectiveness. Ethical and economic issues will also need to be resolved before any large-scale deployment is envisioned. Let’s remind everyone the same: will never replace a human being and carebut they can be effective complementary tools.

  • Some examples of robots supporting the elderly are successful, but they are currently relatively rare.
  • Although some results are promising, other research shows that in certain cases (dementia) the presence of a robot in daily life does not necessarily improve the lives of patients.
  • Ethical, technical and economic issues still remain the main obstacles to the deployment of robotics in this area.

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