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Will elderly embrace robot health care?

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By THOMAS ROGERS, 08/20/2012

“Full robots with arms are still very expensive,” says Ashutosh Saxena, a professor in the department of computer science at Cornell, “but they are getting cheaper by the day.” He predicts that armless robots — capable of communicating verbally with the elderly and observing them in case of accidents — will hit the market within the next five years.

There’s just one hiccup: the elderly themselves.

Despite manufacturers’ hopes, robotic technology has proven to be alienating for many older people — even, the BBC reports, in Japan, a country with an intense, long-term love of all things robotic.

Alexander Libin, scientific director of simulation and education research at Medstar Health Research Institute, argues that one of the biggest challenges is that the elderly need to be able to communicate easily with them. Although many robots (and mobile phones) can now recognize voice commands, nonverbal cues pose a much bigger challenge. Libin, who has worked extensively on robot-patient interaction, believes that touch-sensitive technology — like the one used by Paro, the therapeutic seal robot — will play a large role in making robots palatable to seniors.

“The Japanese want robots to be like them,” says Libin, noting Japan’s long tradition of treating inanimate objects like living beings. In the United States, we’re more comfortable treating machines as machines. “We want things we can control.”

The path toward robot acceptance may also require  patience. Like other forms of social change, robot acceptance may simply require one generation to replace the previous one.

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One Response to 'Will elderly embrace robot health care?'

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  1. Thanks for the wonderful article on robotics for elderly. I would have to agree that the capability to recognize non-verbal cues/actions is very important. In fact there is one more thing that is also important, the capability of robot to affectively touch the elderly. I heard this comment from one of the delegates who attended a talk related to dementia.

    Touch is one of the modalities, however there are also other modalities such as non-verbal cues (e.g. shouting, crying), speech emotion (e.g. angry voice while talking) and also facial emotions (e.g. happy and angry face).

    Me and my colleagues in ASORO, is currently working on a robot pet companion capable of recognizing emotions of a person through different modality and also some features that addresses the need of the nurses and/or healthcare givers. We have been getting great feedback when we present our ideas to healthcare institute and nursing home related to elderly. However the market for elderly is a very unique market. There is a need, however the user, which is the elderly, may not be the person who is paying for the robot.

    The possible people that might be paying for a pet robot companion for elderly might be their immediate family members, government or even voluntary welfare organization. But in reality, will they fork out money and buy a robot for their elderly? Let say we have a rental business model that everyday you only need to pay $1 for the renting the robot.

    I’m not implying anyone acting inhumane towards our elderly, but that is a fact that we might not be able to pay for something to improve the quality of life for their remaining days. And I hope there is something we can do something about that to change it. Will it be us, the roboticist to change that by making sure that the robot price matches its quality/features? Or should it be the government or family members? A mix probably.

    Tan Yeow Kee

    29 Aug 12 at 3:08 pm

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