Over the next ten years, 76 million Americans will retire. These baby boomers comprise the largest single generation of retirees in American history - while in Europe, growing life expectancy and decreased fertility are poised to double the ratio of retirees to workers in some countries by the year 2050. This drastic demographic shift makes it easy to see why companies and individual researchers around the world are investing in elder care technologies, from remote nursing to smart homes. How might robots fit into this picture? Here, developers of elder-care robotics lay out the state of the field as it stands today, along with their expectations for its near future.
By the middle of this century, the world will hold more people over the age of 50 - and perhaps three times more people over the age of 80 - than ever before. But unlike a huge generation of, say, teenagers, these elder generations will be subject to physical and cognitive decline - necessitating cultural and technological changes in order for the outnumbered younger generations to sustain them effectively.
“As worldwide populations grow older, we’re also noticing a decrease of young people and resources available for providing care,” says Antonio Espingardeiro, a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) who specializes in the development of social assistive robots (SARs) and assistive technologies. This isn’t just a question of population numbers, though - it’s also a problem of resource allocation. At a time when national budgets are already overstretched, governments are feeling the pressure to funnel funds toward job growth - and younger workers are laboring overtime to stabilize their own careers.
“It’s difficult for the state to devote an ever-increasing portion of its budget to elder care,” says Silvia Coradeschi, a professor of information technology at Sweden’s Örebro University. “And at the same time, the increasing mobility of the younger generations makes it more difficult for elders to rely on their family members to support and care for them.” Still, many of those family members want to give their parents and grandparents a shot at the quality of life they deserve in their golden years.
“People in this generation of retirees have generally enjoyed high standards of living,” Coradeschi says, “and they expect to keep living enjoyable, fulfilling lives.” These expectations are creating a demand for solutions that allow retirees to remain in their homes and continue their normal lives, even as their age-related impairments are progressing.
Dire as the situation might seem, technological optimists say it only highlights the vital importance of innovation. “Technology should not be seen as a substitute for human care,” says Gabriella Cortellessa, a research scientist at Italy’s Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione (Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies), “but as a way to make better use of available resources - especially in countries that have fewer financial resources available. It provides an additional means to mitigate phenomena such as social isolation, and to contribute to accident prevention.”
Technological solutions for elder care are already taking a variety of complementary forms, including smart homes, remote check-ins from doctors and family members, and prosthetic limbs and ambulatory devices. But that picture may not be complete, some researchers say, until retirees also have the option to purchase robotic assistants.
“Our research over the past few years has found that a friendly companion like a service robot can add value to the lives of certain groups of older people,” says Herjan van den Heuvel, project coordinator of the European Mobiserv project, which develops interactive homes and robotic assistants for older adults. “These companions ease some of the burdens of the person needing care, as well as easing the tasks of professional caretakers and family members.”
What burdens are those, specifically? First off, Cortellessa says, “A useful robot must have a simple but robust grasping capability;” and indeed, Espingardeiro and van den Heuvel are both currently helping to develop robots that’ll serve exactly this function. But the ambitions of these researchers extend far beyond mere arm assistance. “Tomorrow’s robots will be able to cooperate with other intelligent components in the smart home,” Cortellessa says, “and will provide services that can be customized for different sets of needs.”
These services are likely to include serving up meals and medicines at the right times, providing support following an accident, and perhaps even keeping retirees company by anticipating their desires to play a card game or listen to music. “Socially assistive robots could contribute to supervision, to cognitive assistance and brain exercise, to entertainment, and to companionship,” Espingardeiro says. “All these things can significantly improve a retiree’s quality of life.”
As Cortellessa points out above, even the most advanced robotics won’t entirely eliminate the need for human caregivers - and that’s good news not only for those already working in the home care industry, but also for anyone interested in helping create the future of elder-care technology.
In a 2013 brief to the Congressional Robotics Advisory, Jeff Burnstein, president of the
Association for Advancing Automation, explained that robots have already created 10 million jobs for humans through 2011, and predicted that tens of millions more robotics jobs will be created over the next twenty years. Although these jobs won’t all be related to robotic elder care, the expanding demographic of retirees hints at more career opportunities in this area.
“Technological progress evolves exponentially,” Espingardeiro says, “which means that people will have to adapt to different conditions, processes and treatments much more rapidly than in the past.”
Meanwhile, as smart homes and assistive robots become more common, we’ll need caregivers who understand how to work with these resources, developers who know how to improve them, and maintenance staff who can repair them and keep them running smoothly. Educational paths to these kinds of robotics careers can take a variety of forms. Builders of robotic hardware often come from backgrounds in computer science, electronic engineering, and mechanical engineering - while user interface designers often draw on skills in software and app development, and even web design.
“I don’t think these developments pose any kind of direct threat to the stability of other health care fields,” van den Heuvel says, “but I do think health care workers will have to become more open-minded toward the prevalence of technologies that’ll help them, support them, and improve the lives of their patients.” In fact, most of the pressure will be on developers, engineers and interface designers to create products that are safe, secure and user-friendly for retirees, medical staff and family members alike. Given the field’s early stage of development, and the sheer size of the demographic it aims to serve, the experts agree that plenty of openings still exist for those willing to blaze a trail in that direction.
Although some aspects of the world of 2050 might seem hard to predict today, the implications of certain trends are impossible to ignore: People are living longer and having fewer children, houses and vehicles are getting smarter every year, and robots are getting more and more adept at executing physical tasks. As the market for assistive technologies continues to grow, user-friendly robotics appear to be all-but inevitable components of elder care - even if the roles they end up playing turn out to look very different from the ones we expect.
Ben Thomas is the founder of The-Connectome.com. He is a professional geek with an addiction to neuroscience, philosophy of consciousness, sensory augmentation, etc. An expert at weaving scientific discoveries into compelling narratives, he's featured regularly on leading science news websites, and is engaged in active dialogue with hundreds of scientists, writers, producers and followers. He also specializes in explaining the latest research to the public in down-to-earth terms, and promoting discussion about its implications throughout digital and physical spaces.