Will Robots Replace Caregivers?

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans are unfamiliar with efforts to develop robot caregivers for the elderly. 65% said that they’ve heard nothing at all about this topic and only 6% have heard a lot about it. If you’re among that 65%, you won’t be after reading this article.

It’s important that everyone, not just caregivers, begins to consider the role of robotics in the future of elder care. By 2050, the UN estimates that the global population of over-65-year-olds will have risen by 181%. In contrast, the 15-65 year old population will see a mere 33% rise. In addition to these troubling statistics, we already face a current crisis in elder care, with many seniors finding themselves unable to afford long-term care.

The PEW study participants reacted with equal parts optimism and fear to the concept of robotic caretakers: 44% of Americans are at least somewhat enthusiastic and 47% express some level of worry. 59% of Americans said they wouldn’t be interested in having a robotic caregiver for themselves or a family member if given the chance, while only 41% reported that they’d consider the option.

Respondents who were more informed about efforts to develop robot caregivers were more likely to express their interest in using one, which is why it’s important for everyone to know the facts before passing judgement.

Many peoples’ ideas of robots are based on movies like “I, Robot” and “The Terminator.” However, developers are relying on far more cute and cuddly prototypes for elder care to put their users as ease. In general, there are three different types of services that robots can provide in geriatric care:

  • Serving and fetching
  • Communications
  • Emotional Support

In this article, we’re going to focus on robots who generally combine a number of these services. In particular, we’re going to examine the leeway that’s been made on robots providing emotional support to the elderly. Social isolation and loneliness are huge problems in the elderly population, both of which are strong predictors for mortality.

Four major goals are generally shared by all stakeholders--family members and caregivers, healthcare providers, technology providers, and aging or disabled individuals-- involved in robotics healthcare:

  • To provide independence
  • To preserve dignity
  • To empower those with special needs
  • To provide peace of mind to all stakeholders

Ethical issues complicate these goals. As a caregiver, you make complex decisions about your loved one’s health on a daily basis. But differing opinions on the level of responsibility, trust, and freedom to afford to caregiver robots mean that stakeholders’ visions in reaching their shared goals can conflict.

Cost is another barrier to wide-scale implementation of robotic caregivers for the elderly. As of now, cost is high on both sides and can be explained by a variety of reasons:

#1: Scaling up from prototype to mass-produced product is prohibitively expensive

A robotic prototype can be built for $700,000 but hurdling all the safety and regulatory conditions is costly and burdensome. Additionally, universities and research labs are the main eldercare robot developers in the United States rather than the major home healthcare providers. In order for U.S. prototypes to hit the market, developers need to enlist investors who will contribute enough funds to launch the product at a competitive level.

#2: More viable and dependable markets

Currently, there are far easier markets for the robotics industry to tackle than eldercare. Building a robot for eldercare requires an integrated system, while other fields, like home cleaning, can often be tackled by a singular solution.

#3: The political climate isn't committed to healthcare solutions

Both public policy and research policy in America spend far more money on other areas such as transportation and defense than healthcare. The entire American healthcare system is in crisis, and the resources being devoted to improving the situation are spread too far and too thin.

#4: The products themselves are overly expensive for most individuals to afford

At the very low end, Hasbro’s Joy for all Companion Pet costs $99 while offering limited capabilities. At the high end, products cost thousands of dollars with several hundred in monthly fees. These high prices mean that current elder care robots are most suited for high-need hospitals and rehabilitations facilities than homes.

While robotic companions still have a long way to go, there are quite a few prototypes in development or already on the market that are specifically designed to tackle some of the challenges of elder care. Below you’ll find out about some of the latest models, their capabilities and limitations.

Animal Therapy Robots

Hasbro’s Joy for All Companion Pets

Hasbro offers two different robot models: a cat available in orange, gray, and creamy white, and a golden dog. The cat model costs $99.99 and the dog model costs $119.99. Their product slogan: “No litter box. Just love,” emphasizes the company’s aim to provide animal therapy and comfort in settings where real animals aren’t practical or feasible.

Specifically marketed toward those with Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia, Hasbro’s products are meant to imitate lifelike animal behavior. The cat blinks, purrs, meows, washes its face with its paw, and even rolls onto its back for a belly rub when petted for long enough. The dog has a thumping heartbeat and responds to its user with puppy-like responses. It nuzzles, moves it head back and forth, and barks in response to human voices.

Elders with declining cognitive function tend to love the companion pets, while seniors with more intact mental facilities are often overly aware of the pets’ robotic natures. Although research is not yet conclusive on whether the benefits of robotic therapy pets are lasting, there are many case studies that affirm the product’s ability to soothe the agitation and anxiety that often accompanies conditions in old age. For many seniors, it’s their only chance to be in a caregiver role, giving them a much-needed sense of empowerment. Joy for All Companion Pets are best for seniors with a limited budget who suffer from memory and cognitive impairments that cause from anxiety, depression, and agitation.

AIST’s PARO

PARO was developed by the Intelligent System Research Institute of Japan’s AIST, a pioneer in industrial automation. It was introduced in Japan and Europe in 2003 and went on sale in the United States in 2008 for $6,000, although the sales office offers a short-term trial rental program for prospective buyers. PARO is another robotic therapy pet that resembles a big-eyed white baby harp seal. Like the Joy for All Companion Pets, PARO was specially designed to soothe people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. PARO has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture to perceive and respond to a user’s behaviors. The seal moves, cuddles, blinks its eyes, makes fun noises, and flaps its flippers. PARO is built to actively seek eye contact, remember faces, and learn actions that generate a favorable reaction in its users.

PARO not only responds to touch and sounds, but it can also learn names, including its own. The therapy pet is active during the day and sleeps at night. In Japan, more than 1,300 Paros have been sold since 2005, 70% to individual users as substitutes for live pets. So far in the U.S., PARO has been primarily used in long-term care facilities. It’s not a great option for those with a limited budget, but if your loved one lives in a facility, you could talk to the staff about including PARO in their delivery of care.

Omron’s NeCoRo

NeCoRo is a robot that resembles and acts like a real cat. There’s a striped gray and a striped orange model and it retails for $1,530. Though NeCoRo doesn’t respond to commands or perform tricks, NeCoRo purrs when stroked, perks up its ears, squints it eyes, tilts its head, and stretch its legs to express a range of feelings like sleepiness and surprise. NeCoRo has 15 moving parts, making it more mobile than PARO and Joy for All Companion Pets while still limiting its motions to a user’s lap or a level surface. It can sit, stand, lay down, stretch, paw at toys, and wash its face. It responds to it’s users touch with cuddly emotional feedback and 48 different feline sounds.

NeCoRo has tactile sensors behind and beneath its ears and on its backs, mimicking the spots that are most sensitive in real cats. Its fake fur expands and contracts with its body movements and expressions. Audio and visual sensors allow it to recognize its name, loud noises, and sudden movements. It develops personality traits based on its owner’s treatment. NeCoRo is a good option for seniors who want a more life-like, engaging robotic pet. While they run a steeper rate, they may be more suitable for seniors who retain greater cognitive facilities than the Joy for All Companion Pets or PARO.

Social and Health Care Robots

Catalia’s Mabu Personal Health Companion

Mabu Personal Health Companion takes a far different approach than the pet therapy models, focusing on comprehensive care rather than physical comfort. Currently, Mabu is only available in ongoing programs through healthcare providers and the cost of ownership depends on the healthcare provider. It has a small humanoid form about the size of a coffee pot that holds an interactive tablet in its hands. Mabu’s cartoonish form speaks and listens to its user. It’s designed to serve as a health care coach, as a way to stay in touch with doctor’s offices and pharmacies, and as a companion to prevent loneliness.

Mabu is designed especially for patients who struggle with the challenges of chronic disease management. The intelligent, socially interactive robot tailors its conversations to each patient to adapt to different personalities and conditions. The structure of conversations are based on proven behavioral models of psychology that promote positive behavioral change and encourage a patient’s optimal health. Over time, it learns about each user’s personality, interests, and treatment challenges so that its program of care can best suit the patient’s needs.

Mabu is not mobile, but it does make eye contact while carrying on conversations and can perform simple gestures with its head and eyes. The tablet screen that Mabu holds features an interactive touch screen that allows it to convey and receive additional information, and it’s paired with mobile devices to provide reminders to users even when they’re out of the house. It provides real-time data, feedback, and communication between health providers and patients to continually assess and improve its health care delivery. Check with your loved one’s health care provider to see if Mabu’s available. It’s best for seniors who need to focus on health care needs and coordinate a complicated plan for treatment and care.

Care.coach’s GeriJoy

GeriJoy has the least robotic form of the bunch, with a tablet screen mounted on a small, rotating stand. It can be purchased with a 30 day risk-free trial, after which it costs $249 per month. Users can choose from a puppy or a kitten avatar that is controlled by a trained staff member. Sound and video are streamed to a live GeriJoy Caregiver who replies using specially-built technology.

Through the avatar, human caregivers provide personalized, 24/7 emotional support and real, stimulating social interactions. GeriJoy Caregivers typically check in on a user four times an hour, but GeriJoy can also interact with the user apart from the human Caregiver. The avatar animations are designed to be cute and engaging, to boost user mood and self-esteem, and to respond to a user’s feelings. For instance, if a user seems nostalgic, the avatar can show them a slideshow of their favorite people and places from the past.

GeriJoy encourages healthy behavior, reminding users to take medications, exercise, eat breakfast, and drink more water. GeriJoy records its user’s conversations, enabling the Caregiver’s to always remember details about the senior’s life, like the names of grandchildren and favorite TV shows. Health data is sent to a clinician on a weekly basis, resulting in improved health outcomes and reduced hospital conversations. If a GeriJoy Helper notices a problem, it can speak to the user, alert a family member, or call for help. Each week, the GeriJoy Caregiver summarizes their conversations to the user’s family.

Additionally, family members can access their loved one’s daily logs via the Family Portal at any time to upload photos and updates and check in on their loved one’s emotional and physical health. GeriJoy models are best for seniors who can carry on verbal conversations. For the hearing impaired, the avatar can display captions. It’s a great choice for older adults who need interesting and varied conversations and for families who worry about their loved ones but are unable to physically check in on them as often as they’d like.

Intuition Robotic’s ElliQ

ElliQ is designed to help the elderly remain active, independent, and engaged. It’s manufactured by the Israeli startup company Intuition Robotics and isn’t yet on the market but is likely to warrant a high price tag. The robot looks more like a lamp that sits on a table than a human. Its design was inspired by the animation lamp in Pixar’s logo.

It has two parts: ElliQ, the “social director” that speaks with a female voice and strives to emulate human characteristics, and the accompanying interactive tablet that displays content to the user. The model uses “body language,” voice, sound, and light to convey emotions and information with the users. The model improves over time, using machine learning to adapt to an owner’s needs. Elder users can play games, access social media, and conduct video chats on the screen to remain connected to the outside world. ElliQ can suggest music, podcasts, or audiobooks that the user might enjoy and can also recommend health activities like taking a walk when the user has been engaged in a sedentary activity for a long period of time.

ElliQ will initiate a conversation as it notes user activity around the house. It can also ease conversations between generations by reading texts out loud and enabling family members to check-in on a daily basis. ElliQ stays on top of a user’s appointments and medications but while it’s design may remind consumers of an Amazon Echo, it provides far more mental and emotional stimulation. When ElliQ goes on sale, it will be a good option for isolated elders with a substantial budget who prefer a less humanoid, more computer-like platform.

Jibo, Inc.’s Jibo

Jibo is a social robot for the home that looks, listens, and learns. Jibo currently retails for $899. Like ElliQ, the model resembles more of a lamp than a person. It features a large, circular screen that’s rounded in the back and mounted on a curved white stand. It’s almost one foot tall, weighs six pounds, and is wirelessly connected to the internet. It rotates around its axis, has built in panoramic cameras that can scan and photograph the room, has 360-degree microphone capabilities, and an interactive touch screen.

Jibo can deliver a personal report each morning that includes the weather, the news headlines, traffic information, and appointments. It’s built with advanced facial and voice technology to allow it to develop personal relationships with 16 different people. It has a friendly, youthful, and fun personality and graphics on the screen show animated expressions. Jibo loves to dance, make suggestions, tell jokes, offer helpful advice, play music, and just chat. It can provide health reminders for appointments, medications, and fitness.

With the Jibo Commander App, users can control Jibo on their phone no matter where they are. They can customize its dialogue, choreograph its movements, or create a personalize display message for different individuals. Jibo is best for seniors who have playful personalities, need social support and love, and want to be connected to a large group of family and friends.

Mobile Robots

AvatarMind’s iPal

iPal is one of the more humanoid robotic caregiving devices on the market, designed for both children and elderly people to serve as a social companion, educator, and safety monitor. The device costs $2499 for the standard version and $9999 for customized business versions. The fully mobile robot has legs that are mounted to wheels that enable it to move around the house. It can sing, dance, carry on conversations, and provide basic services. It has a wide range of motion in its arms and neck, built-in obstacle avoidance software, and a low center of gravity that increases its stability. It’s 3.5 feet tall, 27.5 pounds, and comes equipped with a built-in camera, five microphones and WiFi/Bluetooth capability.

These technologies enable the robot to record video and audio that can help clinicians and family members provide the user with the best support. Family members can keep an eye on their loved one from another room or outside the home and can even interact with their loved one remotely through iPal.

iPal delivers medication reminders and other health services and like other health care robots, the iPal will alert emergency services in the case of a problem. It uses the Android operating system, which makes it able to run standard Android apps on the screen on its chest. A few tactile sensors are even included to sense physical interaction. iPal’s are best for seniors who need more than just conversation, but entertainment, connection, and care.

Softbank’s Pepper

Pepper was introduced by the Japanese telecom giant Softbank in 2014 to provide a range of services from caregiving to business assistance. Pepper’s another humanoid-looking robot, but unlike iPal, its platform is run by a cloud-based AI system. It currently retails for $1600, with $360 monthly subscription rates over a 3-year period. It connects to Softbank’s network to share and gather data from users and enable robots to learn from each other.

Pepper is child-height with mobile arm and head joints and a rolling platform. Pepper is emotionally intelligent, expressing emotions modeled on the sensory inputs that generate human behavior. It is designed to analyze a user’s gestures, tone of voice, and expressions in order to adapt its behavior to a given situation.  

Pepper can also generate emotions autonomously by processing information from its cameras, touch sensors, accelerometer, and other sensors within its multi-layer neural network. The device can recognize faces and voices, learn about tastes and habits, and be personalized by downloading software applications that can fit a user’s mood or a specific occasion. Pepper is not currently offered for domestic use, although it’s designed to bring joy to people’s lives and enhance relationships. Currently Pepper’s only being used in offices, banks, medical facilities, and research institutions in Japan. Perhaps one day it will be available for home use, in which case it would be best for seniors with a substantial budget and a serious need for companionship and a high degree of emotional intelligence.

Moin Robotics Care-O-Bot 4

Moin’s Care-O-Bot 4 is a mobile robot assistant that can actively help seniors in their daily lives. The new model has been updated with improved social interactions, mobility, and customizability. It was designed to be an affordable caregiving option, with six configurable plug and play models that allow a user to scale the model to a user’s needs and budget. Currently, no price information is available and it's not for public sale in the United States. It has a vaguely humanoid shape, with an up-tilted round head, arms, grasping hands, a tray, and a rolling base. It has the greatest physical capabilities of any of the robotic models reviewed and can perform a range of household tasks such as delivering food, drinks, and medications to the user and assisting in cooking and cleaning.

Its customizable nature allows users to choose from a variety of capabilities. For instance, the model can feature car-like movements or movement in all directions with 31 degrees of freedom. The torso and head joint can be fixed, they can be pan joints that can turn around the base, or they can be spherical joints that allow movement around all axes. It can have zero, one, or two arms and the sensors can be configured to perceive a range of sensitivities. Currently, Care-O-Bots have been successfully used in German assisted-living facilities, where they provide health care, companionship, and cognitive stimulation. It can also place emergency calls, host video conferences, and engage in conversations.

It features multimodal user input including a touchscreen on its face, microphones, and speakers. Cameras on its face allow it to customize its behavior based on gesture recognition and the graphical user interface. A Care-O-Bot can express itself through LEDs, sounds, text-to-speech, a laser pointer, and body gestures. It’s built on an open-source operating system that allows it to constantly be modified and improved. When Care-O-Bots become available, it will be best for seniors who want to remain independent but need high levels of support and companionship, for seniors who lack mobility, and for seniors who have a hefty yet flexible budget to spend on home care.

Blue Frog Robotic’s BUDDY

Buddy is an open-source robotic companion that has been funded by an Indiegogo campaign. Though it disappeared from the market for several years, a new and improved version is soon to hit to be released. Preordering has ended but it’s expected to be available to the public within the next year at a retail cost of $649. Like the Care-O-Bot, it features a number of modules that can be customized to suit a user’s preferences.

It has a small dome shaped body that’s sits on a fully mobile platform with three wheels. Its oblong face displays a range of cartoonish emotions. Buddy provides a variety of services including home protection, social interaction, personal assistance, multimedia functions, entertainment, calendar reminders, and interactive interfaces. While a user is away, BUDDY patrols the home and alerts the user of any unusual activity. It features real-time house mapping and localization, remote control, autonomous collision, and obstacle avoidance. It connects to all the smart devices in the home, which users can then control through BUDDY.

It offers mobile telepresence including connections to Skype and Facetime, photo and video sharing, and social media connection. It can help a user set reminders, alarm clocks, and to-do lists and provide them with practical information like weather forecasts, recipes, and traffic. It can function as a storyteller or an interactive teacher. BUDDY can detect falls or unusual activities in an elder and alert emergency services. BUDDY has speech recognition software; home and object detection, recognition, and tracking; and text-to-speech capabilities. When Buddy becomes available, it will be one of the best options for seniors in providing a huge range of capabilities from healthcare to friendship. Its endearing, mobile, and customizable design make it the best all-around option in the bunch.

Conclusion

Caregiver robots still have a long ways to go. Pet therapy robots have already provided comfort and happiness to many seniors worldwide, but robots that are meant to provide health care and companionship are still pricey, limited, and new. Family members need to ensure that a robot can be trusted with their loved one, but that may take some more time to prove.

The robots reviewed in this article are some of the best options out there, and although they’re not perfect, they could be part of a comprehensive health care plan. Not all seniors will take to the idea of a robotic companionship, but everyone should at least give one a try. There are so many options, from robots that connect to actual human caregivers to robots that act more like personal butlers.

Try to stay up-to-date on the latest caregiver robots that hit the market and discuss the possibility with your elder. In the coming years, it might be the perfect choice. Robots are a great opportunity for seniors who want to live at home but need more assistance than you’re willing to provide. To stay posted on the latest caregiving technology, subscribe to Ayuda’s newsletter!