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So wrong: Japan’s hope for the tech-enabled and robotic aging life

Remember the Cyberdine demo of HAL at ASA some years ago? The Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) was designed by a venture firm in Japan to help a wheelchair-bound individual stand and move. It was very cool. It was priced at that time (2009) at around $5000. By 2014, the device could be rented for the equivalent of $1400/month. And now it has again been modified. This time, according to the WSJ article about Japanese demographics, the country needs its older laborers to work substantially longer. So a 67-year-old worker in the construction industry can stack wood just like someone half his age. Yay. And then there is the charming Pepper robot, selling for an equivalent of $1600, leading recreational activities in senior housing, charming the residents. In Japan, 13% of the population is 75+, and in another statistic, 15% of the 'elderly' population has dementia

Just like swooning over self-driving cars, will robotic caregiving become a US fad?  Let us hope not – can't we seek and find workers who can provide human interaction? This seems to be something that seems out of reach in Japan. We have had plenty of hints about the role of robotics in US caregiving – between Paro, Jibo, GeriJoy.  And we all love the advances in technology – no doubt CES will be overrun with robots, self-driving cars, and drones.  But this is just like swooning over those crashing self-driving cars --humans cause those crashes, don’t you know? And like the cars, which can’t seem to guarantee that all humans are off the road and thus not in their way, the robotic caregivers bring all sort of scenario analysis opportunities. I guarantee that no one will do that analysis until a disaster happens, where else but in a dementia unit in an assisted living community.

Pepper is on the premises, leading activities.  A scenario that is not imaginary: We’re in a locked memory care unit and it is Saturday. At the moment, no supervisor is nearby. One of the male residents peers into the face of a female and begins yelling at her. Let’s add Pepper the robot, who is leading a song that everyone loves. But Pepper isn’t skilled at conflict resolution, does not change behavior and simply continues singing. Another resident is sobbing, a third has had a toileting accident. What is the priced-under-$2000 Pepper to do? Is human error (as with the cars) to blame if Pepper doesn't do the right thing? Or will the technology be blamed. In this case, what will the family member of the sobbing resident, for example, do when told by an observer that Pepper was there, a so-called Caregiver robot, but became confused and didn’t intervene when the male resident punched the crying female resident in the face? What organization will sign up for the liability of deploying a less-than-trained robot with the elderly?

The news media loves stories about caregiver robot possibilities. But of course, they don't like to write about the reality. Who keeps Paro the seal clean enough for the elderly to pass it from hands to dirty hands? Who makes sure that robotic devices are properly charged and operational? Or has someone invented another task for the overworked humans working in senior housing? And as for the home-bound elderly, is this better than a Skype call from a professional or family caregiver?  Someone who guides a camera around the home setting and determines that an emergency is about to or has happened?  Is it really necessary (or true) that everyone who could help provide care to older adults will have opted out or disappeared by 2050, including the Japanese who could recruit workers outside of Japan? In the meantime, there is at least one reason why the home care industry (the one that sends real people to the home) is booming. Paro, Pepper, Jibo, GeriJoy – all together, they just can’t get the job done.



I’m not a apologist for the aging tech business, just a senior doing volunteer work in the aging services sphere. The proper place for these robotic helpers is as extenders, not replacements for human judgment (such as it is). If you’ve spent as much time as I have in the various settings that house those on the slow road to death, you know that this is essential. We are not able to provide enough human caregivers for the needs we are facing now, much less in the future, especially since we don’t want to pay professionals a living wage or reimburse family caregivers for their lost income. Whether paid or unpaid, most caregivers don’t have the training or physical strength to deliver optimum care. And we’re definitely in trouble if we decide to ship those who don’t look like us back to their countries of origin and not let anyone else in. I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping for a nice little terminal condition before my ADLs become a burden.

I appreciate the information you provide about assistive technology.

Anne Bellegia

Speaking as someone who is developing a companion robot for seniors, I thought it might be appropriate to comment.

I would tend to agree with you that the notion of a "caregiving robot" is flawed, especially if it the idea implies replacing a human with a robot. First, no technology exists, or is likely to exist anytime in the near future, of a robot that can replace a human in the caregiving role.

My company's philosophy is not to replace humans, but to augment/enhance the human potential. Think of it in the same way that most of us use a desktop, tablet, or smartphone today. Such devices extend our lives by helping us remember important things, keep informed topics we are interested in, facilitate communication with other people, learn new things, and even entertain ourselves. However, conventional technologies in the market today are more challenging for the senior audience because screen sizes or complex user interfaces. They are also inherently passive, in that they generally do little unless we initiate interaction. And in large part, the most common/popular platforms offer little in terms of accommodating an aging population. 

So our goal is to create a new platform that is easier to interact with and be more proactive and adaptive to individuals. In doing so, we believe we can empower seniors to be more self-sufficient. Rather than being a replacement for humans, the goal is to help fill the gap between the numbers of seniors and the available supply of human caregivers. 

As to your comment about the robots currently in the market, or recently announced, missing the mark, a few words. First, most of these robots are not yet really targeting the senior user. They present themselves more as a consumer platform, generalizing that they could also address seniors as well, but that isn't necessarily going to be true. If it were so easily so, existing technologies would likely suffice. The senior market requires taking specific focus on seniors, their needs and capabilities, and their interests, and it may also take time and testing, and possibility a few iterations before it will get there.

Second, if one thinks back to the first "personal" computers on the 70's, while they generated a lot of excitement, none really delivered and it took some time for the technology and market to mature. After IBM shipped its first PC, few of these early companies survived and even IBM's PC had to evolve beyond its lowly 4.77 MegaHertz processor, floppy disk drives, 256K of RAM, and 320x200 screen resolution before the industry shifted to a device that could be seriously used for business. So one should not be too surprised if some of these early "personal" robots may still not fully deliver on what most of might expect for a "robot". That said, like PCs, we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of platform that will become as commonplace as the devices we already use today, but it may take time for them also to evolve. But like the technologies we use today, it is best to see "robots" not as replacements for humans, but as tools that empower people. Let's just hope that can be achieved before we are overwhelmed by a "silver tsunami".