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Sophia the Robot Retooled to Help With Senior Care

Hanson Robotics sees a huge opportunity in the COVID lockdowns for a mass robot rollout that substitutes for human companionship

Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics is rolling out Sophia the Robot, to help people cope with loneliness during government-enforced isolation as a response to COVID-19. Brushing aside claims that human contact is preferred, firm’s principals see the lockdowns as creating new opportunities for the robotics industry. Founder and CEO David Hanson says, “Sophia and Hanson robots are unique by being so human-like. That can be so useful during these times where people are terribly lonely and socially isolated”:

Social robotics professor Johan Hoorn, whose research has included work with Sophia, said that although the technology is still in relative infancy, the pandemic could accelerate a relationship between humans and robots.

“I can infer the pandemic will actually help us get robots earlier in the market because people start to realise that there is no other way,” said Hoorn, of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Michelle Hennessy, “Makers of Sophia the robot plan mass rollout amid pandemic” at Reuters

Sophia is projected to take temperatures and lead morning exercise for the elderly in health care settings. Another Hanson robot rollout, Grace, is focused more specifically on health care. A third, Pepper, swoops on people who aren’t wearing COVID masks. Hanson sees robots as “our friends” one day in “a very positive future.” Meanwhile, he thinks, they can keep us away from the dangerous situations where humans are with each other.

The viral following that Sophia has amassed since the 2016 launch is not in a mood to be critical. In 2019 Sophia gave an interview on NBC’s Today show where viewers were informed, “I hope to do things such as go to school, study, make art, start a business.” Programmer Jonathan Bartlett responded, “Hope? Computers cannot hope—hope requires consciousness, and there are no serious AI experts who think that computers can hope. In other words, these claims aim at manipulating viewers into thinking that AI and robotics replicate human reality.”

That raises a question: What will be the effect of consigning frail seniors with cognitive issues to the care of robots? It’s one thing to give them a robotic pet. Practically speaking, live animals can be a problem in a care home because the staff must focus on patient care and the residents may not be able to look after animals. But replacing the staff with robots is, by contrast, a huge change in a value system that used to set considerable store by human contact.

That said, the trend is well underway in Japan where population decline means a shortage of young people to work as caregivers. One 2018 survey reported that over eighty percent of Japanese would welcome robotic caregivers. But that figure may track the possibility that the alternative is no caregiver at all. It’s worth remembering, too, that Japanese culture is also comfortable with robotic religious preachers and with funerals for robotic dogs.

Robots currently do some tasks in Japanese care homes:

It’s a good question whether seniors in less robotics-friendly cultures would be as accepting of robot caregivers. Not that their views will necessarily matter. One attraction of robots is that they will be cheaper than human caregivers and they will not have unions or personal or civil rights. True, there is a movement among techies to give AI the same protections as animals but it would be realistic to expect market forces to prevail and thwart that.

A Canadian journalist looked at some carebots in use in Canada or under development there by Goldie Nejat and colleagues at the University of Toronto — and came away with a very different sense than that conveyed by David Hanson showing off Sophia:

“I look at Salt, standing at attention, and I think of my grandmother, and Nejat’s question: “What else are we going to do?” Well, we could train and hire more personal support workers, and then proclaim the value of this work (mostly performed by women of colour) by paying better wages. We could strengthen employment laws to protect family members (again: mostly women) who take time off work to care for their loved ones. We could follow the recommendations of the Canadian Medical Association to implement a national seniors strategy, making critical investments in long-term and nursing care to avoid a looming crisis of wait times and bed shortages.

Or, you know . . . robots.

Katrina Onstad, “Can Robots Ease the Caregiver Burden?” at Chatelaine (March 6, 2020)

Onstad is not, it would seem, a believer. Sophia, if present, would likely jerk into a canned lecture on the importance of tolerance of robots.

The point Onstad raises should not be lost on us. Most seniors who live in care homes value human companionship more than anything and robots are hardly a substitute. If visitors and caregivers dwindle and robots proliferate, it is because of choices that are, by any reasonable standard, morally bad.

You may also wish to look at: Erica, robot film star, is pretty typical modern-day puppeteering It may be a good film, to be sure, Jonathan Bartlett stresses, but there is little new AI in there.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Sophia the Robot Retooled to Help With Senior Care