Monday, October 10, 2016

On the Topic of Robots at The Legacy Film Festival on Aging

Left: Robot Dog. Right: Alice Cares.
As a graduate student, I conducted a literature review on the subject of robots as caregivers for older adults. A few professors thought this topic was controversial and would not support my paper. Even with the proliferation of robotics technology, the idea of using robots to augment the caregiver shortage is often met with ambivalence. On this subject, two robot-themed films were featured in the 6th Annual Legacy Film Festival on Aging (LFFoA): Robot Dog, directed by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari, about an aging (presumably childless) Japanese couple and their beloved robotic dogs, and Alice Cares, directed by Sander Burger, on a Dutch pilot study pairing Alice, a social 'care-bot', with older women who lived alone. In both films, robots provided companionship and helped decrease feelings of loneliness. In addition, Alice encouraged healthy behaviors and inspired social interactions between its users and other people.

After the screening, I co-facilitated a discussion and Q&A with Victor Wang, an MIT-trained roboticist and researcher. The interactions between the subjects and robots in the films were mainly positive, and many LFFoA audience members found the films and discussion interesting and educational. A few, however, expressed concerns, and even disapproval of the idea of robots as caregivers. I was not surprised that some people would find the idea distressing, as I found similar opinions among professors and classmates regarding my literature review topic on robots and caregiving.

Concerns often revolve around fears that reliance on robots would lead to elder neglect, or that robots would gain too much control over people. Robot technology is far from being perfect, but it's fair to say that having human caregivers does not guarantee that older adults would always receive the best care. Geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson states many caregivers are overworked, and supplementing care with robots may reduce neglect and abuse. From a logistical standpoint, Johan Hoorn, the researcher from the Alice robot study, states that there won't be enough people to provide care for the global aging population. Utilizing robots, therefore, may become a necessity.

Left: Alice Cares. Right: Audience discussion with Victor & Koko. 

Many of our beliefs are shaped by our cultural environments, and until recently, caregiving was provided solely by people. It's no wonder that many older adults are uncomfortable with the idea of receiving assistance from robots. In contrast, the Japanese are enthusiastic towards the use of personal robots. Author Christopher Mims suggests that Japanese share the cultural belief that everything has a soul, which was also mentioned in Robot Dog. This may partially explain why older Japanese do not seem as distressed over the use of caregiving robots. Personally, I see myself utilizing robots in older age and wonder if my attitudes stem from my Japanese heritage and from growing up in a technology-dependent environment? In addition to receiving practical assistance, a robot's cool impartiality appeals to me as I imagine it would not care how old I am, what I look like, or be irritated by my personality quirks. It would not lose patience if I become forgetful due to memory changes, and it would not take things personally if I'm in a foul mood and should utter unkind words.

Quite possibly, robots may help fill the caregiver shortage in the coming years. Nevertheless, it is always critical to include older adults in the entire process of creating robotic products so they can be active participants rather than passive recipients of technology. In looking back at the LFFoA, the films on robots and older adults stimulated honest conversations about ways to support our aging family members and to think of our own needs as we age. As always, I applaud LFFoA for featuring thought-provoking, socially relevant films on aging. I'm grateful for having had the opportunity to be part of this unique event!


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  2. Thank you Koko for bringing this important topic to light, and for sharing about both sides of the issue. The cultural acceptance in Japan is so intriguing! I will have to read up (and watch the movie) to learn more about what is happening there with caregiving robots.

    1. I appreciate your comments, Debora. Japan has been developing robots for some time. I think most are utilized in nursing home environments, but there are less-costly consumer models being developed for older people to use at home. I don't think robots were intended to replace human care completely, but can certainly be helpful with various tasks.