It won’t be long before robots become a normal part of our everyday lives. Soon, our mobile companions will provide everything from coaching to communication to companionship, keeping us independent as we grow older. The era of human and robot interaction has begun, and it is changing the way we experience ageing.
Can robots solve the problems of an ageing society? Ongoing research suggests they can. Today’s robots can take out the trash, help you walk and do the shopping. They can crack jokes, recognize emotions and even learn. Although fully functioning robot caregivers may be a long way off, roboticists and physicians predict that a new wave of advances in computerized robotic technologies will be available in coming years to help older adults stay at home longer.
It all started in Japan, where expanding lifespans and declining birth rates are causing an alarming drop in the working force and an increasing demand for caregivers. To address gaps in labour and care, the Japanese turned to one of the things they do best: technology. The world is following suit. With people living longer than ever before, the European Union (EU) has been investing tens of millions of euros annually on robotic research for elderly care.
“Studies show that national and European ageing-related healthcare costs are continually increasing, so the EU is strategically committed to encouraging sustainability through technology,” says Jorge Dias from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, who is working on GrowMeUp, an EU-funded initiative that promotes robotics for active and healthy ageing. “GrowMeUp’s objective is to show that a robotic system can increase healthcare efficiency while improving quality of life. We hope it will help the elderly to stay longer in their homes, rather than in care centres.”
Another project, Robot-Era, recently conducted the world’s largest trial to date for testing the effectiveness and acceptability of robotic services for the elderly. Some 160 seniors in Italy and Sweden took part in the four-year pilot where robots did the shopping, helped take out the trash and watched out for security risks like open doors and gas leaks.
“I am happy that a robotic system can facilitate my daily activities,” said Wanda Mascitelli, one enthusiastic participant. “Living alone, I feel safer and more relaxed at home.” Her verdict is no surprise, even the most skeptical among us can recognize that robotic advancements translate into empowerment for an ageing society.
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Dehumanizing the elderly?
As the number of devices multiplies, how will the elderly respond? Are we alienating them? Gelin doesn’t think so. “On the contrary, in retirement houses, the robot becomes a centre of attention and discussion bringing people together. These machines strengthen social connections, namely by allowing grandparents to maintain closer contact with their grandchildren. Ultimately, we are talking about assistive devices compensating for handicaps, which users often find less stigmatizing than, for example, a cane or a wheelchair.”
The robotics expert does not deny that a human nurse or family member offers better company, but he believes that, in our fast-paced society, this is not always possible. “It’s better, and much safer, to have a robot than be alone.”