Early in the new science-fiction film Robot & Frank (opening Aug. 17 in New York and Aug. 24 elsewhere), Frank, an elderly man, gets a visit from his son, Hunter. Worried about his father's apparent decline, Hunter takes a gift out of the back of his car: a white robot with a humanlike body and a polite speaking voice. The machine, Hunter promises, will keep his dad healthy and focused—and the house clean. Frank’s not so sure: "That thing's going to kill me in my sleep," he worries. But before long, the "health care" robot is cooking his meals, planting a garden, and planning activities to keep his human overlord occupied.
The film's depiction of robot-human relations may still be a fantasy, but it's also a reminder we've been expecting elder care robots like Frank's in the real world for several years now, and so far, they're nowhere to be seen. So what's the hold up?
It's no secret to that America is getting older. By 2030, thanks to the baby boomers, one in five Americans will be 65 or older, stressing the health care system and economy. Half of those over 85 require assistance in everyday activities, and, if 2009 numbers hold up, more than 13 percent of people over 85 will spend time in nursing homes. It's unclear who will pay for this and how. And more importantly, it's unclear who will take care of all of these old people.
The solution, the robotics industry hopes, is technology. In Japan, where panic over an aging population is nothing new, elder care robots have been a priority for more than a decade. One of the Japanese researchers' bigger successes is Paro, a touch-sensitive companion robot—a sort of high-tech stuffed animal, shaped like a seal—for elderly people with cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s. Japanese Nursebots can lift up elderly patients and bring them breakfast in bed, and this year, researchers from Japan's Chukyo University released Babyloid, a baby-like robot similar to Paro that looks like something that crawled out of a Miyazaki movie. In recent years, Japanese tech giant Panasonic has created a hair-washing robot, a drug delivery robot, a robotic bed, and HOSPI-Rimo, a robot with a touchscreen that helps hospital patients communicate with doctors and family.
In the next decade, the selection of personal elder care robots is expected to expand dramatically in the United States as well. "Full robots with arms are still very expensive," says Ashutosh Saxena, a professor in the department of computer science at Cornell, "but they are getting cheaper by the day." He predicts that armless robots—capable of communicating verbally with the elderly and observing them in case of accidents—will hit the market within the next five years. These kinds of robots, which could even monitor a person's medication intake, should allow elderly people to live independently and healthily longer, like a very sophisticated Life Alert bracelet. Fully functional robots with arms, he believes, will be available within 10 years. Their precursors are already appearing in university research labs: Kodiak, a large robot unveiled by Saxena and his team at the Cornell Robot Learning Lab this summer, can generate a 3-D map of its surroundings and use it to, among other things, slice cucumbers.
The biggest sign yet that elder care robotics is about to arrive in a big way is the fact that iRobot—the company responsible for the Roomba and numerous U.S. military robots—began focusing on the elderly market in 2009. Its first effort, Ava, which consists of a robotic mobile platform with a tablet computer, will be tested in hospitals this year. Ava uses sensors to navigate rooms and hallways and allows elderly people to teleconference with doctors or family members. It may not be I, Robot, but as the market grows and research intensifies, more sophisticated models won't be far away.
There's just one hiccup: the elderly themselves.
Despite manufacturers' hopes, robotic technology has proven to be alienating for many older people—even, the BBC reports, in Japan, a country with an intense, long-term love of all things robotic.