- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: Invasion of the Robots

With the aging population far outpacing the resources of caregivers, robotics seems to be a plausible solution — until you consider the consequences.

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My Lovely Wife and I have always shared our home with a small but influential caucus of cats. I was never a cat person prior to our courtship, but in the 40-odd years we’ve lived together I’ve found their benefits to slightly outweigh their liabilities. On the one hand, they tend to suppress the mouse population and offer occasional light entertainment; on the other, they generally resist behavioral training and sometimes seem to overshoot the litter pan just to make a point.

Still, whenever I visualize life in our 80s and beyond, I can’t quite imagine us stumbling around the house without a couple of cats underfoot, reminding us of our inferiority. Better that than some sycophantic robot.

I don’t raise this point simply to reveal my Luddite sympathies. All signs seem to indicate that C-3PO wannabes are massing for an invasion on Geezerville. Tech firms, well aware that Big Pharma’s efforts to develop a dementia remedy have foundered — and that the aging population will far outpace the resources of caregivers — are churning out prototypes designed to comfort, instruct, or simply entertain a captive market of seniors struggling with cognitive decline. It’s a market ripe for the taking.

A number of these companies gathered in Las Vegas earlier this month to show off their wares and discuss the future of aging in vaguely dystopian terms. Among the technical marvels on display were robotic animals to provide companionship, virtual-reality programs to educate caregivers, and digital-messaging services to facilitate communications between clinicians, service providers, and family members. But, as Casey Ross reports in STAT, the aroma of looming catastrophe permeated the scene.

American families, Ross notes, are emptying their pocketbooks to the tune of $500 billion or more every year to care for their elderly relatives — a price tag that is clearly animating much of this technological evangelism. “If we do not support the role of family caregivers and value them in this process, there is nothing we can do to bend the cost curve beyond what we’re doing,” warns SeniorLink CEO Thomas Riley, whose firm is developing a digital communications platform.

And most of Riley’s peers seem to be convinced that robotics is the answer. From “companions” such as Pepper, Zora, and Paro to “assistants” like ElliQ, iPal, and Mabu, robots of various types and functions have begun to infiltrate senior-care facilities here and abroad. In Japan, for example, more than 3,500 Paros, a cuddly robotic seal pup, are at work each day, comforting elderly dementia sufferers.

There’s plenty of consensus on the financial upside of Paro and its ilk. As Corinne Purtill points out in Quartz, a one-time outlay (about $6,000 in the case of Paro) delivers consistent, focused service. “A caregiving AI needs no sleep, never gets sick or distracted, has no obligation apart from its service,” she writes. “It accomplishes the essential task of caregiving: placing the care recipient at the center of one’s attention.”

And, at least anecdotally, there’s some evidence that the faux seal pup delivers some value to elderly patients. “I’ve been in this field for 25-plus years,” Rudy Griffin tells Purtill. “There isn’t any other thing we have in dementia care today that [is effective] at every stage of this illness.”

But others have raised troubling questions about the long-term impact of robotic intervention. There is, after all, some utility in navigating difficult human relationships, Purtill notes. “Is our goal to never be inconvenienced by anything?” she asks. “Shouldn’t the people we love be the one thing that’s worth our time and trouble?”

And on a societal level, she wonders whether this intense focus on robotics will inevitably divert attention from solving the societal problems that created the need for robots in the first place. “The better robots get at keeping us company, the less incentive there will be to allocate human resources to the task,” she argues, “or to work on systemic changes that could make human care and companionship more readily accessible for everyone.”

I can’t disagree with Purtill, but I do sometimes wish I could make some use of this impending robotic invasion to create some system change on the home front. As much as I appreciate my cats warming my lap on a winter’s evening, I wouldn’t mind laying down the law once in a while, maybe letting it slip that a cuddly seal pup could soon be moving in unless they shape up. Maybe they’d stay off the kitchen counters, stop toppling flower vases and milk pitchers, and aim with occasional accuracy at the litter pan.

I suspect it’s a fool’s errand, though. The cats would simply turn on the charm until we deported Paro to the basement closet to cuddle with the kids’ forgotten teddy bears. Eventually, they’d get around to puking in my shoe again.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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