Gramps and his pet robot

By Eili Skrivervik

Sociable robots entering health care; a necessity and an ethical issue.

Sociable robots are raising many questions about how we take care of our elders, and how we plan to take care of them in the future. For a lot of people, it seems first and foremost to be a question about feelings – not the feelings of the elderly themselves, but the feelings of relatives and caregivers. Should we feel guilty about the sight of gramps caring affectionately for his pet robot?

Paro the sociable robot

Paro is a seal-like sociable robot designed to interact with humans and encourage emotional attachment. Targeted towards elderly in nursing homes, Paro has been proven to calm the distraught and depressed. Still, many seem worried about this development. The term sociable robot implies a robot that is able to “understand” people through communication and interaction. With a growing number of elderly patients to care for, and with labour constraints of cost, efficiency and lack of human personnel, introducing robot assistance to care homes and hospitals seems inevitable. How should we do this, considering politics and ethical concerns?

The demands of an aging population

According to the World Health Organization, the number of people aged 60 and over will double by 2030. Thanks to developments in medicine, technology and a generally safer world, global life expectancy has seen an unprecedented increase in recent decades, challenging our current health system capacities. How we take care of the growing elderly community on a global basis is an increasingly important task.

Artificial care and ethics

One of the major concerns when it comes to inviting robots into elderly care is the ethical aspects that arise. Are the robots just poor substitutes for human health personnel, or are they the only way forward? Are the elderly left dehumanized as a result of robot care? Is it ethical to let emotionless machines take care of emotional humans? Loneliness makes people ill, and part of the goal with sociable robots is preventing loneliness. If we succeed in creating a viable substitute for human care personnel, making our elders happier and healthier, does it matter how we do it? I think the reason we raise so many questions around the issue of robotics in care is due to fear, uncertainty and doomsday stories about technology. Technology can get hacked, and robots perform tasks without contextual understanding or knowledge, and without affection. There is something dubious about a device showing affection without really possessing it.

Looking ahead

Many agree that the use of robots in elderly care could be a necessary next step. With rapid advancements in technology, robots of the future may still be emotionless, but they may not appear to be. Does the prospect of this make us feel better, or worse? If a robot could be built to appear as sensitive and caring as a human, would that make it ok? The current options are not really viable; the number of personnel required in the coming decades to take care of the growing number of elderly is beyond what is likely or even possible from the global community. Besides, economically it doesn’t add up. So, maybe the question we ought to ask should be how we can possibly let our elders go without the best care available?

While gramps is petting his robot, we are left with questions relating our own vulnerability and inadequacy. Is it perhaps time to ask what the elderly want?