Patience, patience, when it comes to robots and elder care. When it comes to robots to assist with caregiving and the elderly, we want to believe. It was just 2 years ago that Gecko Systems issued a press release saying that they expected "Medicare/Medicaid Payments to Increase Personal Robot Demand." Makers of the CareBot, the company announced its dealer program in June 2010 -- but it is unclear whether the company has moved into commercial release. It was just 3 years ago that the uBOT-5 (UMass Amherst) was offered up as having the potential to provide elder care for aging baby boomers.
Sounds good -- maybe stymied. On the (positive?) side, iRobot's Colin Angle announced that iRobot would make robots to assist the elderly and would tap the interest of the "American government which could provide the financial aid to develop these domestic robots." Hmmm, not so likely these days, with this US senator publicly criticizing NSF investment in robots, particularly irksome to the senator was the towel-folding research experiment. The 'foul' cry of the researcher is certainly the priceless part: "Towel folding is just a first, small step towards a new generation of robotic devices that could, for example, significantly increase the independence of elderly and sick people."
Other causes for, uh, robotic eldercare optimism. The Japanese, way ahead at experimentation and conversion to product, have produced Paro, the baby seal-bot for pet-free companionship that will help elderly Japanese be less lonely -- at $6000 in the US, it's out and presumably somewhere in the US today. Then there was HAL, the 'exoskeleton' to help nursing assistants lift residents (also Japanese developed, also estimated at $6000). And now, a Japanese Caretaker Robot that kneels to lift people off the floor, priced at $78K (that's right!) to save nursing aide labor. But as one nursing home worker noted on LinkedIn, this lifting cannot be done unsupervised -- because of course, the robot cannot observe and communicate the condition of the person on the floor -- so no labor savings there, yet; more research required, and its just as well, availability is predicted to be around 2015.
The trouble with robots and eldercare -- people are required. So with the Caretaker Robot announcement, let's mark the reality of where we are today. Elder care robotic technology innovation and research is failing the elder caregiving industry. Whether in Japan (where the aging population and scarcity of caregiver workers is already frightening) or in the US, where longevity expectations are up, up, up -- and the workload of caregiving is up enough to confirm that the fastest growing job category in the US among all careers is personal care aide, best salary prediction, around $20K. So where does a robot fit into the personal care aide scenario, when that job represents employment to hundreds of thousands in a slumped economy? More to the social point, a person can hug and be hugged, smile, and engage with a lonely older person. Through a web camera and Skype, more than one person can be engaged in conversation and monitored for changes in health status, demonstrated in numerous examples at relatively tiny price points.
Rethink robot role in elder care. Before someone says that this blog post is anti-technology, hold on. Scientists and engineers would say that you can't have a really useful robot until experiments, trials, pilot projects, redesign, and rethink phases have all been (sequentially) completed. Certainly true, but you can halt release of press packets and video interviews until the usefulness is up and the price point is down. Unfortunately, isn't that precisely the point -- to obtain more funding for more research in still-not-useful projects, publicity is required and the press just eats it up. In the meantime, to those smart folk in Japanese and US research organizations, how about slicing off just a few NSF dollars for projects that are focused on making the jobs of CNAs better and less back-breaking today? How about as an interim approach, introducing a few clever technologies that pump up the socialization for older adults well beyond pathetic Paro parity. Efficiency in meal packaging and delivery, effectiveness for staff during shift turnover, more social connectivity for seniors at home or in senior housing -- those might be a good start. And to the NSF -- for every $1 invested in robotic research, how about 10 cents toward making the lives of older adults better right now?