Will the First Job of Robots be to Help the Elderly?

Science is taking the fiction out of robotics, with what once was only seen in the movies, is now coming to real life; Robots. The timing really couldn’t be better. As technology expands at an exponential rate, advances are now being utilized in the real world. We have seen such things as driverless cars and automated manufacturing as just the tip of the iceberg. I’m reticent to call it a niche, but the baby boomers have created a massive market for elderly care. This is where the robots come in.

Baby Boomers represent the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964. They were born during the post-World War II baby boom. They are also the wealthiest, most active and have the most disposable income for food, apparel and retirement programs.

The dilemma is not specific to the U.S. Those over 65 years old now will account for 28.7 percent of Europe’s population by 2080, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics arm.

Many of us have a parent or family member who is in need of care, whether it be around the clock, or just someone to talk to or to share a meal with. Friends and relatives often can’t do all the work. As much as loved ones want to help, growing evidence indicates it’s neither sustainable nor healthy for seniors or their loved ones to provide 100 percent of the care. Yet demand for professional caregivers already far outstrips supply, and experts say this workforce shortage will only get worse. According to Cynthia Matuszek, Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “I believe artificial intelligence has the potential not only to care for our elders but to do so in a way that increases their independence and reduces their social isolation.” The first step in the process will be to introduce smaller, more task-specific robots that perform functions like that of the Roomba, the robot vacuum cleaner. Robots will be able to help with what are called “tasks of daily living.” Activities such as eating, bathing, etc. that may one day become automated.

One of the major strains on healthcare of the elderly is labor to facilitate the ability of a senior to live at home, or aging in place. A major advantage of robots is their around the clock availability. Computer scientists are exploring ways that a robot can monitor an individual at home during the night while sleeping. If this concept could be automated, you would reduce the need for care by almost half. However, according to Dr. Luís Santos from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, “There is a mismatch between what elderly people want and what science and technology can provide – some of them are expecting robots to do all types of household activities, engage them in everyday gossip or physically interact with them as another human would do.

Many questions still surround the use and compatibility of robots with the elderly. A Pew research survey shows that older Americans are becoming more receptive of the idea of automation and robotics. Scientists are asking questions about the emotional needs of seniors and the ability of robots to provide this. Professor Matuszek sums the future potential by saying, “I believe robots will perform many elder-care tasks within a decade. Some activities will still require human caregivers, and there are people for whom robotic assistance will never be the answer. But you can bet that robots will help seniors age in place, even if they won’t look like butlers or pastry chefs.”

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