Will robots look after you in your old age?


Across the world, intelligent lifelike computers are now providing support and comfort to the elderly and infirm. Who will care for you in old age? Lee williams reports.

In the popular Channel 4 drama, ‘Humans’, every family owns an intelligent life-like robot which helps with tasks around the house. Some of these robots work as carers in the homes of elderly people, providing company and emotional support as well as physical care. So good are they at it, that one of the characters even forms a father-son relationship with his robot. It makes for good science fiction, but the real world might be heading towards such a situation more rapidly that we expect. The worlds population is ageing. By 2050 there will be around 1.5 billion people over 65 and we soon won’t have enough human workers to care for all the sick and elderly. Something will have to fill this care gap and robots, it seems, are already doing it.

In Japan, ‘Robears’ – robotic nurses designed to look like giant teddy bears – help with the lifting and moving of patients, while ‘Paro’, a baby seal-shaped robot, provides comfort and company for elderly patients. In Europe the collaborative STRANDS project is designing robots to assist human care workers. In fact STRANDS robots are already working in care homes, where they are learning to adapt to complex, changing environments. “We saw them employed earlier this year in an elderly care home,” says Dr Marc Hanheide, one of the researchers on the STRANDS project from the University of Lincoln. “They learned a lot from this experience. Our robots can cope with change and tell you if anything unexpected is happening like, for example, if someone is roaming about in the middle of the night.”

Hanheide’s robot, ‘Linda’, has used this extra learning time to cope with more complex tasks, even to the extent where it can now ‘run’ therapy sessions such as guiding groups of dementia sufferers on walks around the care home. “The idea for the therapy was that we could provide a focal point,” says Hanheide. “So the robot took the lead, carried on and even tried to keep people engaged by playing songs – the residents were actually singing along with the robot while they were on the tour.”

Projects like STRANDS and ‘Robear’ are about the physical side of care and don’t touch on the emotional or social side which human carers provide. However other researchers believe that not only can robots provide the emotional and social side of care, but that they are already doing so. Professor Tony Belpaeme of Plymouth University builds robots specifically to socialise with humans. His team was first approached by a hospital in Milan that had been working with animal therapy to improve positivity in patients. However the animals could carry harmful diseases and some of the patients were allergic to them, so their brief to Belpaeme was simple – could he provide a robot version of a pet? Belpaeme thought he could do even better. “We decided to take it a bit further and try to build a robot friend,” he says.


Belpaeme’s team set about building a robot that could not only interact with children but that they could form a bond with. They did this by presenting the robot not as an all-knowing machine like a computer but as something more vulnerable which could mistakes, learn and be corrected. “They really enjoy that,” says Belpaeme, “and because of that you get the kids really bonding with the robot. They look forward to seeing it again. They will tell the robot things they wouldn’t tell anyone else. We’ve even had incidents of children making little presents for the robot and bringing them on their next visit.”

Belpaeme found that the robots worked particularly well helping children with diabetes learn and come to terms with their condition. The robots could talk to the children about the disease and also teach them by playing quizzes and games. The ALIZ-E project, as it is called, is now waiting commercial take up. Meanwhile Belpaeme’s team are working on the DREAM programme – a similar machine that will help children with autism who, according to research, respond particularly well to robots. He even hopes to see robots being used as teaching assistants in mainstream classrooms where they could not only free up time for the teacher but also prove more effective than other forms of technological teaching aid. “If you put a tablet in the classroom children are going to learn something,” says Belpaeme, “but if you put a robot in there they’re going to learn much more – it’s about 50 per cent more.”

But would the same kind of social interaction work with elderly adults? And could robots ultimately take over from human carers, providing an artificial equivalent of the human touch? Dr Hanheide doesn’t think so. “It’s exactly the kind of thing that leads us in the wrong direction,” he says. “When we’re dealing with suffering, with loneliness it would always be better to have human contact, I believe.”

But Professor Belpaeme is more positive, providing the technology is good enough. “We’ve seen in pilot studies that elderly people will happily have a robot in the home to talk to,” he says. “Technically it’s not possible to have a robot do that autonomously yet – there’s someone sitting at the buttons. But the moment when you have a machine in someone’s flat talking about things then people will want to go for that.”

So could we see the same kind of human-robot bonds being formed as in the drama ‘Humans’? Hanheide believes it’s not only possible but already happening. “We see it all the time,” he says. “There are people undergoing therapy today because they fell in love with Siri on their iPhone. It’s actually an area of research – how do you cope with this? Maybe these machines should have a certain amount of awareness and actually warn people – ‘you might want to take some time away from me. Maybe you’ve played enough now and should actually see a human.’”


Photo Credit: julochka on Flickr.