PALM SPRINGS, CA: At the beginning of last month, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was being strapped into a Genworth R70i, and if that sounds like some sort of powerful robo-suit designed to turn an ordinary human being into a superhero, that is not exactly correct. The R70i is in fact a powerful robo-suit designed to turn an ordinary human being into a much, much older ordinary human being. The suit is equipped with special technology that allows the wearer to experience first-hand the kinds of hearing loss, vision impairment, coordination problems, stiffness, and muscle weakness that are common to old age.
Why would such a powerful man volunteer to experience that kind of incapacity? Because of the radical new concept that is popping up all over the intersection between the tech world and the elder care world: Empathy. And while the Genworth R70i is designed to help humans empathize with their honored elders, another, much more powerful question is plaguing the folks trying to target high-end technology to the elder care market; can we build robots that senior citizens can empathize with?
Robots Can Revolutionize Elder Care
Elder care robots are not an entirely new idea, but they are pretty new to America. Japan’s first attempt at a functional elder-care robot, a nurse ‘bear’ named RIBA, showed up to assist nurses in lifting elderly folks from beds to their feet. Today, RIBA’s successor Robear can help seniors go from lying to standing (and vice versa), sitting to standing (and vice versa), and help them walk around the doctor’s office. These are important because they are the tasks most likely to cause injuries when nurses attempt them.
Taking over for physical tasks that nurses would be better off avoiding is just the beginning; robots like Honda’s ongoing three-decade old project Asimo can perform lots of small tasks around the house, including fetching objects, making drinks, and cleaning up laundry. Toshiba’s Aiko Chihira features not only an eerily human face, but can communicate in spoken, electronic, and signed Japanese. It is being designed to act as a social companion, in part with the elderly specifically in mind.
Japanese AI expert Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Geminoid Project is working hard to take all of subconscious social cues and accidental expressions we all use and turn them into part and parcel of the human-robot interaction. Once perfected, this will make communicating with a robot extremely close to the experience of communicating with a real person.
Welcome to Uncanny Valley
Some studies have indicated that robots can appear too human, as another exhibit at the latest SXSW showed; the android Sophia is so accurate that even the blatantly robotic parts sticking out of the back of her head are not enough to sufficiently distinguish her. She looks like a woman with a serious cyborg-ic problem rather than like a robot with a face, and that has been enough to make poll-tested elderly observers nervous and skeptical.
The effect is known as the Uncanny Valley effect, because the graph of ‘how comfortable are you with this thing’ starts low at “not at all humanlike,” progresses upward as something starts to look more human (e.g. a teddy bear is more comfortable than a cube with a face on it, but an action figure is more comfortable than a teddy bear). The figure suddenly plummets as you reach a certain level of humanness (similar a corpse or a massively unhealthy person) only to bounce back up to expected levels as you achieve something very close to full humanity. That temporary dip is the ‘uncanny valley,’ and it is a problem robot- and android-makers are struggling to deal with.
The AI Advantage
Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks claimed at this year’s SXSW that, of all the AI currently being developed, driverless cars will be one of the greatest advances in elder care. This is because one of the most significant obstacles to the life of a senior citizen is mobility, and when the car drives itself, seniors will have significantly fewer problems getting to church, to a friend’s house, or to the grocery store (though they may still need something similar to Asimo to help them pack the groceries into the trunk).
It may well be that the answer to the Uncanny Valley problem is to forego the humanity altogether and focus on creating devices such as driverless cars or the Roomba (vacuum-cleaning robot), which iRobot CEO Colin Angle dubbed the “most successful elder-care robot ever invented.” That is because the Roomba is nonthreatening, operates almost entirely without human intervention, and performs an important task that an elderly person might have serious problems with.
If elder care robots are indeed the wave of the future, perhaps making them look like machines (and leaving the concerns of empathy to other actual human beings) is the right path forward, at least for this generation. Once the people who grew up with Wall-E need elder care, they might have a different perspective and be more open to receiving their personal care from robots.