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Will There Be a Robot Helper in Your Future?

A new movie suggests robotic companions could be a huge help as we grow old. But maybe that's not what we really need.

By Gary Drevitch

The widely praised new movie Robot & Frank, which opened in limited release on August 17, tells a story from our near future. It finds Frank, an elderly paroled cat burglar played by Frank Langella, living on his own but showing early signs of dementia. So his son buys him a robot caretaker, which Frank eventually discovers he can train to be his henchman for a comeback break-in. Next Avenue's film critic, Leah Rozen, called the movie "an endearing new comedy." (Read her feature on Langella here.)

The caper carried out by Frank and his robot drives the plot, but the film's vision of android companions for the elderly has inspired a good deal of discussion. Robot caretakers, in less advanced form than the one depicted in the movie, already exist, most prominently in Japan, and improved models are being developed by competing companies worldwide. Whether people will come to accept them as a key part of aging in place, however, is an open question.

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Langella shares his character's initial wariness of robots. "Every one of us is going to go through aging and all sorts of processes, with many people suffering from dementia," he said in an interview with NPR. "If you put a machine in there to help, the notion of making it about love and buddy-ness and warmth is kind of scary in a way, because that's what you should be doing with other human beings.

"Even though it's a cliché these days that machines are taking over our lives," he added, "this film has made me much more keenly aware of how we all miss contact with each other."

Interactive Seals and Doctors on Screens

Japanese robotics companies have developed several devices to aid the elderly, including the soft and cuddly Paro, which provides the calming, cheering benefits of animal therapy — without the animal. The Paro is crafted to resemble a baby harp seal; researchers found humans resisted bonding with robotic cats and dogs because they were too familiar with the real thing. Paro's sensors respond to its users' voice and touch, and it makes authentic seal sounds.

The Japanese government, faced with a rapidly aging population and lacking the workers to assist it, has provided companies with subsidies to "encourage the development of 'service robots' that could help feed, dress and otherwise care for" its elderly, Ron Capello recently reported on the Huffington Post. Japanese nursing homes already employ robotic devices to help lift patients and deliver meals, among other tasks.

(MORE: 10 Tips for Connecting to Someone With Dementia)

Unlike their Japanese competitors, which continue to develop aides with humanoid appearances like the robotic nurse Twendy-One, American companies have been more interested in robots that don't have personalities, writer Thomas Rogers reports in a recent column for Slate. Massachusetts-based iRobot, which developed the Roomba vacuum as well as multiple robots for the U.S. military, has entered the caregiving market with a focus on products that will enable family caregivers to help their parents age in place longer than they would be able to without high-tech assistance. The Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant from iRobot and InTouch Health, for example, is a rolling robot with a large, two-way viewing screen and touch-screen interface. It can help doctors check on patients and make judgments about care without being there in person.


Other robotic devices heading to the marketplace could help elderly diabetic patients with their insulin shots, guide the visually impaired and monitor medications and meals for anyone aging in place. So-called "personal presence robots" let elders attend important family events remotely, by controlling a rolling robot with a screen through which they can see and be seen, and communicate with guests. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about how an ailing 82-year-old used such a robot to virtually attend, and dance at, her son's wedding.

But Do We Really Want Them?

When it comes to robot companions, Rogers writes, "There's just one hiccup: the elderly themselves."

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The path to acceptance for robotic aids, especially in the home, may be long, experts told Rogers. While many devices can now respond to voice and touch commands, robotic recognition of nonverbal cues remains a far more difficult goal to achieve. "And the truth is," he writes, "boomers who grew up long before the rise of computers or smartphones may never be comfortable with the idea of replacing a human being with a machine. Like other forms of social change, robot acceptance may simply require one generation to replace the previous one."

Younger Americans, after years of working with robotic assistants on their phones, like Apple's Siri interface, may certainly be more open to a robot like Frank's companion. But critics deride any thoughts of a future in which society delegates care and companionship to machines, no matter how technologically advanced. "If we wind up with nursing homes full of baby-seal robots," geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, founder of the Green House movement to reshape nursing home care, told the Wall Street Journal, "the robots will be trying to fulfill the relationship piece of caregiving, while the humans are running around changing the beds and cooking the food."

Are we willing to go down a road that sacrifices some of our human connection for the expediency and efficiency of automated care? That's the question Robot & Frank poses, and it's one that technology will likely force us all to answer in the near future.

Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health channels. Read More
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