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Do You Want To End Your Days Talking To A Robot?

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An article in the (May 20) New York Times business section drew my attention with the pull quote: "Should we entrust the care of people in their 70s and older to artificial assistants?"

Since I'm over 70 and one of my parents died with dementia, I read the article avidly and learned that the future is here for us seniors, and it's scarier than any science fiction movie.

The article, by Nick Bilton, begins by citing a film called Robot & Frank about an overly busy son who presents his elderly, live-alone father with a humanoid robot called VGC-601. The dad, Frank, protests, "I'm not this pathetic!"

The reporter then cites facts showing that, as the baby boomer generation ages, the number of elderly people needing care is skyrocketing (72.1 million Americans by 2030 -- double today's number) while the number of potential poorly paid caregivers is dwindling. Hence, a variety of robots are already available to take care of elderly patients.

There's Cody, a robotic nurse who is allegedly "gentle enough to bathe elderly patients".

There is HERB (for Home Exploring Robot Butler) who can fetch household objects like cups and can even clean the kitchen.

Hector is a robot that can remind patients to take their medicines, keep track of eyeglasses and even help in the case of a fall.

There's Paro, a therapeutic robot that looks like a baby seal and has a calming effect on patients with dementia and Alzheimer's.

PR2, a robot designed at Carnegie Mellon, works with people who have autism -- it can blink and giggle as people interact with it. The man who designed it said, "Those we tested it with, love it and hugged it."

Wendy A Rogers, a professor at Georgia Tech and director of its Human Factors and Aging Lab said, "We are social beings, and we do develop social types of relationships with lots of things." She noted that patients with Roomba, the vacuum robot, tend to give their machines names and even buy costumes for them.

Some people, like me, react to all this news about helpful robots with serious reservations. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and author of the book Alone Together said she was troubled when she saw a 76-year-old woman sharing stories about her life with her baby-seal Paro robot. "This is sad," Professor Turkle said. "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."

The Times reporter does point out the ethical questions raised by tricking patients into thinking their robots are human and can understand them, and adds: "That's the catch. Leaving the questions of ethics aside for the moment, building robots is not simply about creating smart machines; it is about making something that is not human still appear, somehow, trustworthy."

I realized after reading the article that health care robots appear to be the inevitable result of a society that isolates its old people instead of incorporating them as venerated members of the tribe, cared for by all the younger members together. It takes a village....

Meanwhile, I'll be desperately trying to hold on to my physical and mental health, in order to stave off the moment when, on Mother's Day, my kids present me with my own personal robot.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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