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Is a Robot Pal Really a Solution to Old Age Loneliness?

New York State is buying a companion bot called ElliQ in a pilot project that is likely among the first of a trend

New York State is buying 800 ElliQ robots from Israeli firm Intuition Robotics to help seniors cope with the familiar problem of loneliness — which worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic:

ElliQ, a tabletop device that resembles a virtual assistant like Alexa or Siri, can make small talk, answer questions, remind users to take medication, help contact friends and family, initiate conversation and help with other daily activities. Users interact with the robot an average of 20 times per day, according to the company.

Margaret Osborne, “New York State Purchases Robot Companions for the Elderly” at Smithsonian Magazine (June 22, 2022)

Greg Olsen, director of the state’s Office for the Aging, says that seniors accept new technology like the ElliQ model from Intuition more readily than some believe:

“Despite misconceptions and generalizations, older adults embrace new technology, especially when they see it is designed by older adults to meet their needs,” said Olsen in a statement. “For those who experience some form of isolation and wish to age in place, ElliQ is a powerful complement to traditional forms of social interaction and support from professional or family caregivers.”

Urooba Jamal, “New York state officials are giving companion robots to more than 800 senior citizens to help combat loneliness” at Business Insider (May 30, 2022)

Questions arise. The seniors are not being asked only to accept new technology — they are being asked to accept it in place of human companionship.

Recent research suggests that social isolation can hasten dementia:

Social isolation is linked to lower brain volume in areas related to cognition and a higher risk of dementia, according to research published in the June 8, 2022, online issue of Neurology. The study found that social isolation was linked to a 26% increased risk of dementia, separately from risk factors like depression and loneliness.

American Academy of Neurology, “Research finds that social isolation is directly associated with later dementia” at Medical XPress (June 8, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

But to what extent will robots reduce loneliness? They can automate medication reminders and exercise prompts but loneliness is an existential problem.

Dementia/CCO Public Domain

Some researchers oppose the growing use of such social robotics because it is seen as deceptive: “The appearance and behaviour of a robot can lead to an overestimation of its functionality or to an illusion of sentience or cognition that can promote misplaced trust and inappropriate uses such as care and companionship of the vulnerable.” (open access paper) Perhaps the main issue will be self-deception on the part of some enthusiastic promoters of robotics for the elderly — that they are any substitute for actually spending time with them.

The idea of robotic companions and caregivers has a longer history in Japan where longevity and a low birth rate has meant “a projected shortfall of 380,000 specialized workers for aged seniors by 2025:

TOKYO (Reuters) – Paro the furry seal cries softly while an elderly woman pets it. Pepper, a humanoid, waves while leading a group of senior citizens in exercises. The upright Tree guides a disabled man taking shaky steps, saying in a gentle feminine voice, “right, left, well done!”

Robots have the run of Tokyo’s Shin-tomi nursing home, which uses 20 different models to care for its residents. The Japanese government hopes it will be a model for harnessing the country’s robotics expertise to help cope with a swelling elderly population and dwindling workforce.

Malcolm Foster, “Aging Japan: Robots may have role in future of elder care” at Reuters (March 27, 2018)

While officials stress that “robots will not replace human caregivers,” that’s hard to square with the reasons cited for using them. In any event, the Japanese industry hopes to supply foreign markets as well.

In Japan, some turn to robotics to cope with a shortage of Buddhist priests in rural areas.

You may also wish to read: Why are robots part of religion in Japan? Declining population is only one factor. Ancient cultural beliefs are another. The robotic goddess is not an AI cult-of-the-decade steaming out of Silicon Valley. She is intended to blend in with age-old traditions, not replace them. Whether it would work in another religious culture is a separate question.

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Is a Robot Pal Really a Solution to Old Age Loneliness?