Robots may care for aging baby boomers as number of home aides dwindles

( Robots may end up taking care of aging baby boomers if the number of elderly care workers continues to decline.

The New York Times reports researchers have developed a robotic nurse gentle enough to bathe elderly patients and a robotic butler that fetches household objects like cups and can even clean a kitchen. They are also working on a robot that can remind patients to take their medicine, keep track of their eyeglasses and assist in the event of a fall.

“There are two trends that are going in opposite directions. One is the increasing number of elderly people, and the other is the decline in the number of people to take care of them,” said Jim Osborn, a roboticist and executive director of the Robotics Institute’s Quality of Life Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. “Part of the view we’ve already espoused is that robots will start to fill in those gaps.”

Here are some more excerpts from the Times story:

There will be 72.1 million Americans over the age of 65 by 2030, which is nearly double the number today. The country will need 70 percent more home aide jobs by 2020. But filling those jobs is proving to be difficult because the salaries are low. In many states, home aides make an average of $20,820 annually.

While the technology is available, some researchers question whether we should entrust the care of people in their 70s and older to artificial assistants.

Sherry Turkle, a professor 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, a therapeutic robot that looks like a baby harp seal and is meant to have a calming effect on patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s and in health care facilities. 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.” Turkle said robots did not have a capacity to listen or understand something personal, and tricking patients to think they can is unethical.

A recent Georgia Tech study found that older people were intrigued by the idea of robotic assistants in the home, but a robot’s appearance played a large role in what they will trust the machines to do. Older people want robots that look human for tasks that involve intelligence, like recommending which medicine they need to take. But they want a more sterile-looking machine for manual labor tasks, like cleaning and cooking, so they do not feel guilty bossing it about.

Wendy A. Rogers, a professor at Georgia Tech and director of the university’s Human Factors and Aging Laboratory, said concerns about older people developing relationships with their in-home helper robots were no different than the bond we develop with other inanimate objects.

Dr. Rogers has been experimenting with a large robot called the PR2, made by Willow Garage, a robotics company in Palo Alto, Calif., which can fetch and administer medicine, a seemingly simple act that demands a great deal of trust between man and machine.

“We are social beings, and we do develop social types of relationships with lots of things,” she said. “Think about the GPS in your car, you talk to it and it talks to you.” Dr. Rogers noted that people developed connections with their Roomba, the vacuum robot, by giving the machines names and buying costumes for them. “This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just what we do,” she said.