• Jul 01, 2016

Robotics Role in an Aging Society

"The robot can also be a useful tool to maintain the social link between the elderly person and his or her relatives."

Using robots to assist elderly people to live longer independently at home is an idea that emerged in Japan during the 1980s. The aging population was rapidly growing, and there were not enough young people to act as caretakers. Thirty years later, Western countries are likewise realizing that robots can be a possible solution to assist their aging citizens with autonomous living. Of course, the first reaction of the elderly person and their relatives is that a robot would never replace human contact, but the cost of human assistance, 24 hours a day, is very significant—for both individual families and for society as a whole. Not to mention, living all day long with one or several persons can be felt as intrusive by the elderly person. Therefore, the robot should be seen as a backup solution to caretaking when the elderly person can’t have (or does not want) human assistance. Despite the already realized progress—and that progress still to come—roboticists are far away to be able to provide the same services as a human being. 

After several discussions with elderly persons, gerontologists, and caregivers, we identified three domains in which robots could assist: safety, socializing, and daily tasks. Safety is probably the most important feature that would justify the use of robots as a gerontechnology. Via its mobility, the robot can always keep a sensor on the person, even when he or she moves from one room to another. The robot can then assist the person to walk and avoid falls, and can detect if he or she falls down. By spending time close to the person, the robot can monitor his or her behavior for unusual aspects. It can also remind the person to take medicines. 

The robot can also be a useful tool to maintain the social link between the elderly person and his or her relatives. It can remind the person of different appointments —with doctors or with family. It can also signal when the person has spent several days without talking to anyone and can propose to call someone to have a chat. The robot can stimulate the cognitive abilities of the person by proposing games or engaging in simple dialogue.

The third and most natural use of the domestic robot concerns physical daily tasks. The robot can fetch an object in another room and bring it back to the person.  It can help dress the person by carrying the mirror or bringing clothing to them. If the robot is humanoid, it can act as a coach and demonstrate exercises. 

Despite these relevant uses, the elderly individuals we met were not very enthusiastic to have a robot as a domestic companion—a cold piece of plastic and metal made of understandable technology was not exactly their piece of cake. So, in addition to the functional capabilities offered by robots, an important aspect had to be taken into account: the acceptability of such technological assistance. The point that generally changed the minds of those we interviewed was the appearance of the robot we brought to them. The little robot Nao is a 58-centimeter-tall humanoid robot with big eyes in a sympathetic round head. Mostly white with some colorful parts, it does not fit at all with the grey and metallic image that people have in mind when envisioning robots. As soon as they see it, people want to know more about it, and they want to talk to it—they like it. They now envisage the robot as a potential device for use at home. 

However, the technological challenges to implement all of the rather simple features we described above are numerous. Furthermore, what people need is an efficient, affordable, and safe tool, not an expensive laboratory prototype that just demonstrates functionalities. More than ever, the collaboration between academics and industry is necessary to reach this first step. By introducing its Pepper robot in 7,000 homes in Japan, Aldebaran demonstrated that the humanoid robot can be considered as a consumer product mainly for entertainment. We must now prove that it can become a useful tool to assist elderly people with autonomy. 

About the author

Rodolphe Gelin is the chief scientific officer and director of research at Aldebaran Robotics. Previously, he worked for 20 years at the French Atomic Energy Commission as the head of its robotics, virtual reality, and cognitics program. He has extensive experience coordinating EU-funded and other collaborative R&D projects on a day-to-day basis. He has led several projects at Aldebaran, most notably the National Romeo collaborative project (2009–12) aimed at developing a tall humanoid robot to assist elderly people. Romeo gathered 12 academic and industrial partners, with a budget of €10 million.