Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Robot & Grandma

A couple of years ago, a "Skype-on-wheels" robot named Celia allowed adult children to remotely check on their aging parents. Now there are robots that could do the dishes, give them a bath, and hold a conversation.

Recently, a New York Times article gazed into the future of robotic caregiving to pose a "fundamental" question: "Should we entrust the care of people in their 70s and older to artificial assistants rather than doing it ourselves?"

The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. The makers of Paro (a furry baby-harp-seal-shaped therapy robot made to respond to its name, coo when petted, or cry when squeezed), would point to the technology's successes in treating Alzheimer's patients.

Similarly, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has designed a robot that can blink, giggle, and develop a personality when people interact with it, to assist in the therapy of people with autism. CMU roboticist Jim Osborn claims that "Those we tested it with love it and hugged it [and began] to think of it as something that is more than a machine with a computer."

But author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle is less sanguine. On seeing a 76-year-old patient share stories with the cuddly Paro, Turkle said, "I felt like this isn’t amazing; this is sad. We have been reduced to spectators of a conversation that has no meaning.... Giving old people robots to talk to is a dystopian view that is being classified as utopian."

Still others would say that personal assistant robots fill an important need at a time when the aging population is exponentially outpacing the caregiver pool.

But even robots that perform simple tasks (and don't do therapy) may come with psychological costs.

David E. Williams, in the Healthcare Collective blog calls it "spooky" that robots can give baths and do other personal tasks. Even if all the robot does is pick up, wash, and put away the dishes, Williams says, "you encounter issues of learned helplessness. If the robot can do it, why make the effort, even if effort is what provides purpose in life and staves off physical and cognitive decline?"

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