As birthrates continue to drop and the percentage of the world’s population over the age of 65 increases, one would expect that the health care field would be leading the way in improving the quality of life among the elderly. Yet many of the most notable advances in senior care are coming from the technology sector.
Engineers in Japan, which has the largest percentage of citizens over the age of 65, have been exploring options that sound more like science fiction than viable solutions.[i] While some of the technology like robots that are gentle enough to bathe seniors and exoskeleton suits for those with mobility challenges are still in development, one piece of robot technology, Paro the therapeutic harp seal, is being widely used across Japan and the United States.[ii]
Paro is comes equipped with sensors and artificial intelligence that can respond to light, touch, and sound and work together to give the appearance that it is responding to human. If you pet Paro, it will make happy cooing sounds. If you talk to Paro, it will look in the direction of your voice and bat its eyelashes. Over time, it can even learn to recognize its name and other simple words and phrases.
This interactive robot was designed to help bring dementia patients, who may have retreated deeply into their own minds, reconnect with the world around them. Paro is used in nursing homes around the world and results show that it can have a calming effect that helps lower stress and increase socialization among seniors in health care facilities. Yet, not everyone is ready to embrace Paro.
Sherry Turkle, a professor of science, technology and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” did a series of studies with Paro. The professor said she was troubled when she saw a 76-year-old woman share stories about her life with the robot.
“I felt like this isn’t amazing; this is sad. We have been reduced to spectators of a conversation that has no meaning,” she said. “Giving old people robots to talk to is a dystopian view that is being classified as utopian.” Professor Turkle said robots did not have a capacity to listen or understand something personal, and tricking patients to think they can is unethical.[iii]
Doctors have been aware of the benefits of animal therapy for years, so why not bring a therapy dog or cat into a nursing home instead or providing an artificial animal? Some health providers argue that a real animal simply requires too much care and it is easier to offer the company of a rechargeable robot. Dr. Bill Thomas, a professor of aging studies, acknowledges the benefits of Paro, but like Turkle, calls for a more comprehensive approach to senior care: “I have no doubt that I could thrill a group of older people with a fur covered robot. I know I can, but it doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t solve the problem that is really causing their distress and their lack of enjoyment of life.”[iv]
When it comes to those who praise Paro and those who urge caution, the line appears to be drawn between the techies and healthcare professionals. Paro is now in its 8th generation and was recently inducted into the “First in the World” exhibition which is a hall of fame of sorts for Japanese technology.[v] Meanwhile, leaders in the study of aging continue to push for a more human approach to caregiving. While Paro is undeniably cute and innovative, some see it as just another quick fix that skirts around the problem of how to best improve the quality of life for a population ever growing population of seniors.
[i] “Quick Facts about Aging Around the World.” University of North Carolina Institute on Aging, 14 Dec 2012. Web. 31 May 2013.
[ii] Blain, Loz. “The Serious Truth behind the Adorable PARO Baby Seal-bot.” Gizmag, 7 January 2010. Web. 21 May 2013.
[iii] Bilton, Nick. “Disruptions: Helper Robots are Steered, Tentatively, to Care for the Aging.” The New York Times, 19 May 2013. Web. 21 May 2013.
[iv] Greenfieldboyce, Nell. “Robotic Baby Seal Coming to U.S. Shores.” NPR, 26 June 2008. Web. 31 May 2013.
[v] Alabaster, Jay. “Aibo, Walkman, Transformers, and Paro the Baby Seal Robot in Japan Tech Hall of Fame,” 27 May 2013. Web. 31 May 2013.