The idea of robots as companions, housemates or therapists is something we imagined as children when the future seemed very distant, but 2016 is apparently the future, and here they are.
ENRICHME (ENabling Robot and assisted living environment for Independent Care and Health Monitoring of the Elderly) is an international collaboration involving the University of Lincoln in the UK. They have developed a range of robots specifically for use inside the homes of the aged community, to help them maintain health and wellbeing – both mental and physical.
The robots are being integrated to work with ‘smart home’ technology, to provide 24-7 feedback to carers and health professionals from the inside of the person’s home. The robots are currently being used mainly as a big mobile phone or mobile assistance – giving reminders to take medications, locating lost items around the house, and enabling video chat with family and friends so that members of the elderly community are able to stay in touch with people via modern communication.
Ongoing developmental research is gathering data on how effective these robots are for the elderly community, but early research shows that they are of particular benefit to people with mild cognitive impairments, such as the early symptoms of the onset of dementia, but with bodies that are still physically able and healthy.
The European Research Project ‘Robot-Era’ recently concluded the world’s largest real-life trial of robot aides for the elderly. The four year trial was funded by Apple suppliers, Robotech and the European Commission, and are said to be ready to be released for commercial sales in 2017.
One of the biggest drives behind developing robotic care for elderly communities is to reduce strain on the healthcare system and care staffing. Mario, a European company developing robotics for elderly care, funded by the European Commission, intends to commercialise cost-effective robots by 2018 that healthcare providers can integrate into the care system, which benefits both the patient and the system.
The way to commercialise the robots and get them into healthcare facilities is to prove that they are effective at improving senior quality of life, and at the same time reduce the cost of caring. There is a large stigma attached to the idea of robots in our home, probably spurred by science fiction films of robots taking over the human population and controlling us. The care industry and robotics industry have work to do to get people to realise that robots are not to completely remove human interactions, but rather to complement them, reduce the load on carers to the elderly, and improve quality of life, giving peace of mind to their families in case of emergency. Mario doesn’t consider robotics an answer to everything, but if it can help elderly people to stay safe and comfortable in their own homes for longer, and at a more affordable cost, isn’t that a great thing?
Another smaller-scale robot that has been well-received in care homes recently is Paro, a robotic seal. In studies, Paro has traditionally been brought to nursing homes where older people (often suffering from dementia or mental decline) hold the robot and interact with it. Positive effects include a general improvement in mood and reduction in depression. And Paro is really cute!
Of course, there are many mixed feelings, including some hilarious opinionated words from the ageing community. An article in the Guardian cites robot care for the elderly as “another way of dying miserably”. Europe’s Mobiserv project has been researching a “social companion robot” called Nadine, to encourage old people to eat healthily, exercise, and let them know when they haven’t spoken to anyone in a while – as if they hadn’t noticed!
The article ends with a reference to our ingrained fear of robots taking over the world; “who cares if Nadine and her kind go haywire and get rid of us? Will the other humans even notice?”
Robotic advancements are happening, and I suppose as elderly people, children or relatives of those elderly people, all we can do is ensure that the proper level of care and a degree of compassion is a part of these “companion” machines. But is that worse? If they have…. feelings? Will they help themselves to cups of tea and biscuits from the pantry? Will they leave the toilet seat up? Only time will tell.