Alexander Libin, scientific director of simulation and education research at Medstar Health Research Institute, argues that one of the biggest challenges is that the elderly need to be able to communicate easily with them. Although many robots (and mobile phones) can now recognize voice commands, nonverbal cues pose a much bigger challenge. Libin, who has worked extensively on robot-patient interaction, believes that touch-sensitive technology—like the one used by Paro, the therapeutic seal robot—will play a large role in making robots palatable to seniors. DARPA, the government-funded research institute, is working on neural robot limb communication, a technology that, Libin believes, could be applied to robots.
Given the elderly population's diverse needs, elder care robots will also likely be far more specialized than Robot & Frank's robotic helper suggests. "People with chronic illnesses like diabetes need a robot that can help them with shots, people with bad vision need guidance, people with cancer that are in pain will need a robot to entertain them by having a conversation or reading a book," says Libin. The coming generation of robots, he says, will be created with those specific goals in mind.
Unlike the Japanese, American engineers have been focusing on robots that are more practical and less humanoid. "The Japanese want robots to be like them," says Libin, noting Japan's long tradition of treating inanimate objects like living beings. In the United States, we're more comfortable treating machines as machines. "We want things we can control." That's partly why American built-robots, for example, tend to move around on wheels instead of legs.
The path toward robot acceptance may also require something very simple and, for robot manufacturers, frustrating: patience. The process of getting old people to be comfortable with robots, Saxena argues, will be a question of gradual acclimatization. Elderly people will have to get used to having small, nonthreatening observer robots watching them in their homes before they'll allow robots do tasks on their behalf—or even touch them.
And the truth is, boomers who grew up long before the rise of computers or smartphones may never be comfortable with the idea of replacing a human being with a machine. Like other forms of social change, robot acceptance may simply require one generation to replace the previous one. According to Levy, only when today's young people—already comfortable with Siri—become old will we see Robot & Frank play out in real life. By that time, not only will robotic technology be more sophisticated, but the elderly, for better or worse, will be accustomed to service bots as unremarkable tools for everyday life.
In Robot & Frank's final scene, Frank sees a group of elderly men walking through a large complex, each trailed by a personal robot that will assist them, presumably, until their deaths. For some people, that vision may be a triumph for technology, to others, a defeat for humanity, and for most of us, some combination of both. It's a vivid reminder that the future of old age is coming, and, sooner or later, we'll have to start getting used to it.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.