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Will robots help us in our homes – now and within 10 years?

Context matters: consider the likely status of people in 10 years. It makes you think. Asked this question recently and pondered. What will be the context at that time? A decade from now, the oldest baby boomers will be 86. Women will outlive men by a few years – living on average into their late 80s. They may be solo agers – no children, spouse or partner. They may struggle financially – including the 15% of women who rely primarily on Social Security income.  By 2030, 20% of the US population will be over the age of 65 -- and likely to be obese and living for at least 8 years with some level of disability. The demand for home care workers will grow by at least by 37%.  According to PHI analysis, the job pays so poorly today that 40% live in low-income households and 43% rely on public assistance.  Put all that together and at least the concept of helpful robots sounds pretty good.

So far, robots are not playing much of a role in the home. Aside from vacuum cleaners, robot toys, and socialization with older adults – robots in the home are not yet at the SciFi level in the film Robot and Frank.  Consider Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot - can you say ‘Voice control’ for kitchen floor washing?  Maybe Amazon’s ownership will improve upon its music-playing trip hazard, the Astro robot.  And there is much to consider about in-home privacy with a technology that can map the interior of a home. However, today, there are numerous research efforts to develop smarter robots – consider the MIT project (2021) or Boston Dynamics’ AI Institute (2022). Or the work underway to advance robotic assists for those with disabilities or evaluate the potential of (seriously) offering hugs.  And stay tuned on the progress from Labrador Systems and a robotic table that can be directed to-from where you are sitting.

What types of robots and/or robotic assistance will be useful in a decade?  Asked this question, what categories of need might be addressed? What form factors will be appropriate? Clearly there will be a need for caregiving robots or robotics to help with bathing and dressing, meal preparation and cleanup, socialization, and multiple in-home safety-related tasks. Will these be subsidized to compensate for the likely home care worker or family caregiver shortage, in the way that wheelchairs and scooters can be subsidized?  Or will in-home robots and robotics target the well-to-do? Will they come with a subscription price, enabling easier swap-out and swap-in of improved versions? Will robots have human-like (humanoid) forms, or will they be distributed as individual assistant devices for particular tasks, as with floor cleaning or as a retrieving table?  Will older adults be open to their potential and use?  Consider Japan’s use of robots with the elderly. And will older adults even have a choice?

Thoughts welcome!

Comments

This is a great piece and it certainly points to the urgency caused by our aging population and the fact that we already do not have enough caregivers -- paid and unpaid -- to cover existing needs. I whole heartedly agree that technology must play a major role in easing the routine burdens for caregivers.

However, I'd argue that we're surrounded by robots already. If you were to ask my mother about when she was a child, the level of automation in our homes would seem to be a miracle. Heating systems that adjust the temperature on their own; washing machines and driers that decide on their own when your clothes are clean and dry; and microwaves that know when your food is cooked. This is all without even getting into "smart home" technology and connected devices.

Not all "robots" are bipedal humanoids. (Just look at the devices that put cars together these days!) But my point is not so much about definitions as perception. When a technology works well, it "disappears" into the background of our lives. We come to depend on it and don't even notice it until it requires our attention for some reason. We already have "robots" available that can help with specific tasks such as medication dispensing and tracking, or automated fall detection in the home. We need to help seniors, their families, and their caregivers become more aware of the options that are available, and to help create a "pull demand" for new products and services.

Who will pay for these? I believe that the answer is "the people who will pay more if these devices are not in place." Just as insurance companies provide homeowner discounts for smoke detectors, health payers will soon find that it costs less to put some of these devices in the home than it does to pay for the consequences. This is already happening for some chronic diseases, and is slowly moving into the general population as witnessed by the growth of telehealth services.

As always, there will be early adopters among seniors, and some Luddites who will resist any technology. But like automatic transmissions in cars, these devices and services will become so easy and effective and efficient that we will take them for granted, as if they had always been here.

I bet our homes would have multiple butler robots like the iRobot within 10 years, but ADL assistive robots that will be able to handle frail older adults and do it safely could take a while.

I do expect to have one by the time I'm in my 80s though :)

It’s difficult to predict how in-home caregiving robots will evolve, but as you write in your post, the demographic shifts and shrinking workforce are certainly an impetus for innovators to develop solutions. I’d like have a robot helper in 10 years and I’m hoping it’ll have a sense of humor!

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