army of robots may soon be deployed: to care for the
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[May 23, 2014]
By Mark Miller
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Imagine
you're 85, and living alone. Your children are halfway
across the country, and you're widowed. You have a
live-in aide - but it's not human. Your personal robot
reminds you to take your medicine, monitors your diet
and exercise, plays games with you, and even helps you
connect with family members on the Internet.
Some technology experts see this as the answer to a predicted
shortage of caregivers to serve our rapidly aging population. Labs
around the world are working on this, and already some robots are
being marketed successfully. Robots have been designed to help
people with physical rehabilitation, assist in a nursing home, and
even provide "telepresence" - in which a robot acts as an avatar, a
physical presence for someone you communicate with at long distance.
A conference in San Francisco last week on innovation and aging
featured a keynote address by Cynthia Breazeal, founder and director
of the Personal Robots Group at MIT's Media Lab. Breazeal's research
focuses on robots that can make social and emotional connections
with people. Her lab has developed a range of robots ranging from
small six-legged devices to small stationary machines that mimic
human expression and communication.
This isn't a new concept: In Japan, a cuddly social robot called
Paro has been available for a decade. Paro looks like a baby harp
seal and is designed to have a calming effect, even eliciting
emotional responses from patients in nursing homes and hospitals.
Breazeal's lab has designed a robot called Nexi that can blink,
shrug, and make facial expressions; another, called Autom, is
designed to help people lose or maintain weight. And telepresence
robots can gesture and pick up non-verbal cues.
"The most surprising thing is that people seem to form an emotional
bond with robots," she said in a telephone interview after the
conference. "Social robots can engage people in more interpersonal
way than a computer can - they can coach, motivate, and even
maintain a social relationship."
Last week's conference was hosted by Aging 2.0, an organization
focused on incubating and launching businesses for the 50-plus
market. Breazeal says we're not far away from practical application
of robots for caregiving at a distance, with the most basic devices
- those that sits in a stationary spot in your home - costing no
more than a laptop computer.
No doubt, the demand for caregiving help will be there.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that demand for direct
caregivers (including nursing aides, home health aides, and personal
care aides) will far outstrip supply in the years ahead. The number
of available jobs is expected to jump 48 percent, while the number
of likely workers will rise just 1 percent.
And fewer family members will be available to help out. AARP
projects that the number of family caregivers available to support
aging parents will plunge in the years ahead. In 2010 there were
seven potential caregivers for every person over 80. By 2030 the
ratio will drop to 4 to 1, and will be 3 to 1 in 2050.
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Still, there's something unsettling about the idea of machines
caring for our elders. It may make sense to use technology to remind
us to take our medicines. But emotional bonding?
"Humans are social beings," says Brent Green, a marketing strategist
and author who specializes in generational marketing. "The boomer
generation is not going to want to use robots to fulfill our need
for interaction with other humans."
Green agrees that technology will play an increasingly large role
helping Americans age in place but thinks boomers, in particular,
will be more interested in innovative people-centered models. I've
written about some of them (http://reut.rs/1kqgT1y):
the villages movement, co-housing projects, and simple house-sharing
We could also see a gray revolt against technology, he says. "I
predict that a large percentage of boomers won't have anything to do
with this. If the kids try to impose a robot on them, they will
For more from Mark Miller, see http://link.reuters.com/qyk97s
(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance.
Editing by Douglas Royalty)
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