Does Your Grandpa Want a Robot for a Pal?

robotIt’s a problem that is getting a lot of attention. The world’s population is getting older. If you are under 70 years of age today, AI will likely be involved in how you are cared for. If a child is born into your family today, those who make such predictions say she or he can expect to live 100 years, or longer.

The problem is complicated further by predictions that as many as a billion jobs may disappear, replaced by automation in the workplace. I am researching for a book I plan to write: Augmenting People: Why AI Should Back Us Up, Not Push Us Out. I think that the future of humankind may be decided by how business and society address this issue, but for now, let’s just address caring for our elders.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is about to play a huge role in this area–as in so many other areas. For example, Google is developing AI retinal sensors to detect cardiovascular diseases. There will soon be nanochips that swim a patient’s bloodstream hunting down cancer cells and big pharma companies are developing AI-enabled drugs to detect debilitating and fatal diseases. Surgeons are using robotics to perform delicate operations with increased precision and less intrusion.

All of these are medical miracles if you ask me, but miracles have a tendency to create unintended consequences. The United Nations predicts that by the year 2100, the world’s elderly population will rise from 965 million today to about 3.1 billion people:

Who will care for them?

As I continue my research, I have been thinking there will be a great many new jobs created for younger people by the needs of older people. After all, speculation varies on it, but predictions for humans being replaced by Robots, Chatbots, Nanobots, and other AI systems in future versions of today’s workplace vary greatly with at least one futurist predicting a loss of one billion jobs in a population that continues to grow.

Surely, people will always be needed to help people. We have certain qualities that no robotic machine will have in any future scenario for most of this AI-dominated century. The smartest of these machines have not a single iota of common sense. The chatbot that gives you the wrong answer online doesn’t really mean it when it says they are sorry it didn’t work, because it lacks empathy. The faces of future robots may become extremely realistic, but I believe there will remain something mechanical in their eyes when they gaze into those of an elder patient who wishes to be listened to.

Don’t get me wrong. AI can and will do a great deal for senior citizens. In my recent talks on Facebook, several people pointed to the wonderful help that voice-activated AI devices such as Amazon Echo, Siri and Google Assistant can provide and this is bound to get better. But right now these devices really can’t provide much help based on the context of age, mental health or personal history of a user, particularly if dementia accompanies old age.

All of this ran through my own aging mind last week when I came across a news item about a company trying out robots as companions in a senior care facility. Certainly, loneliness is a contributing factor in the deterioration of health in older people. And certainly a robot is better than no companion at all, but some senior facilities have adopted dogs, cats, and birds to cheer lonely seniors and perhaps prolong their good health.

The senior people I have been close with would all prefer a pet goldfish to the sort of companion you see in the above photo. Perhaps this humanoid machine contains natural language and facial recognition: it may even recognize your grandmother’s face and be able to pronounce her name. Perhaps it will patiently listen to her stories as she tells them over and over again, while you will not.

But the robot, I wager just won’t be able to gaze into aging eyes with sympathy and understanding. Holding its hand or enjoying the warmth of a hug just won’t be the same as a human companion: it won’t even match the attention doled out by an apathetic cat.

Perhaps, this robotic companion bothers me so more today than it would on other days, but as I write this, my wife Paula Israel is visiting her 98-year-old mother in a senior citizen home, where hospice will be visiting for the first time. Hospice, if you have aren’t familiar with them, make the final journey in the last phase of life more comfortable for the patient and easier for those who love her.

I’m sure the people who envision this eldercare robot are well-intentioned. And yes, I have seen Robot and Frank and Marjorie Prime, two gentle and brilliant works of fiction, but I just don’t think it will work that way in real life at least not until we have completed what is left of this century. This example leaves me thinking about an older work of fiction, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where an authoritarian government used advanced technology to build a Utopian society that turns out, of course, to be something less than that.

What the elderly need the most is human kindness: the only source of it for the next 100 years or longer is likely to be humans.

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1 thought on “Does Your Grandpa Want a Robot for a Pal?”

  1. people to care for people, robots to make the things that humans do worse. Having an efficiency mindset based on machines enriches the economy.

    Funny research in robotics may open new opportunities for businesses though … The possibilities are endless …

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