You know the drill by now. The robots are coming to steal our jobs! And in many cases, that’s true, particularly if you work in food service or assembly line manufacturing. But how about senior living care? Shouldn’t that be at least one line of work that’s pretty much robot-proof?
Not according to this lengthy piece from Time. They talk about a military retirement community in Washington, D.C. where there’s been a robot at work helping to support (and entertain) the residents for the better part of this year. Things got really interesting when they wanted the robot to co-host karaoke night.
Soriano wants to sing the crowd-pleasing hit “YMCA” while Stevie leads the crowd through the song’s signature dance moves. But Stevie is a robot, and this is harder than it sounds.
“We could try to make him dance,” says Niamh Donnelly, the robot’s lead AI engineer, though she sounds dubious. She enters commands on a laptop. In response, Stevie stretches its peg-like arms. A grin flashes on its LED-screen face. “It would be very helpful if he had elbows,” says Conor McGinn, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin and Stevie’s lead engineer. “It was just a thought,” Soriano says. “What matters is what Stevie’s comfortable with.”
Stevie’s hosting gig is part of a collaboration between the Robotics and Innovation Lab at Trinity College Dublin and Knollwood, a non-profit retirement home for military officers and their spouses.
What both Time and the robot AI team are dealing with is the current set of projections showing that there will be a huge shortfall in available caregivers for the elderly in the near future. So with that in mind, the AI team is trying to determine “what senior citizens would want from a robot.”
If you’re talking about entertaining the residents, I suppose there are possibilities. And as with any other operation, robots could no doubt take care of restocking supplies and perhaps even some slightly more complicated tasks like laundry. But caring for the elderly requires a lot more than that.
First of all, there are obvious concerns like keeping an eye out for potential or active medical problems and summoning help. Can a robot spot something like that on its own? I’m dubious, to say the least. Then there are hands-on patient care tasks that could be as intimate as changing clothing, adult diapers (in some cases) and bedsheets, working around the patients. I’m not seeing a path for a robot to do those things even if the residents were willing to try it. (Doubtful.)
Finally, working with the elderly, many of whom may be facing their own mortality somewhere down a not terribly long road, requires empathy and compassion. You almost have to be a therapist at times. Yes, the AI is getting smarter, but it’s not getting emotional. (Or dear God, at least I hope it’s not yet.) You can’t just program some sympathetic sounding phrases into the robot and expect it to provide comfort. People will see right through that.
And then there’s the question of what happens when the AI wakes up and decides all of these old geezers are a waste of resources. But we’ve covered that one here plenty of times already.
I’m not saying there can’t be any use for such technology in the caregiving sector, but in terms of the real work being done to make the residents comfortable, this sounds like a bad match.