Dealing with demographic change—how robots could help

A version of his piece published by Wired.co.uk under the title “From Seal Pups to Cleaners” in January 2015 but is no longer available online. For another version of this essay see this Canterbury University blog page.


A senior citizen interacts with the Paro Robot seal. Image from the University of Sheffield.

It is good to see more attention being paid to the on-going change in UK population demographics.  The number of people aged sixty or over will pass twenty million by 2030. The number of people aged sixty-five or over will also have risen 50% by that year.  We need to get organised to deal with the consequences of this dramatic shift. The 2013 “Ready for Ageing?” report by the House of Lords gave us a stark warning “The UK population is ageing rapidly, but we have concluded that the Government and our society are woefully underprepared”. 

In response to the Lords’ report, the Guardian newspaper is organizing an event on March 5th where we can expect to hear from all of the major political parties about their policies for coping with the demographic shift.  It will be interesting to see what they each have to say.

I will be particularly interested to see if the politicians have anything to say about developing new technologies that could help us as we age.  The Lords report is rather cautious on this topic focusing on what we can do now in terms of telehealth and monitoring—“fire alarms, movement sensors, alarm pendants, temperature alerts and programmes to manage complex medication regimes”.  This list doesn’t even begin to take into account many of the assistive technologies already in development, never mind those we might have by 2030.   Their lordships seem to be have imagined a future UK much like it is today. However, look back twenty years and the internet age had barely started, look forward who knows what life-changing technologies we might have around us?

I know that many people are sceptical about the possible use of robots in care and perhaps fear being left to age in the hands of robots.  These are genuine concerns, but they are also fed by the idea of robots that we get from science fiction rather than by first-hand experience of robots. So put aside the idea of robots that we get from movies and TV and look at what real robots are actually like.

I’d like to clear one thing up right away.  An assistive robot doesn’t have to look like person. To be useful, robots do not have to be at all human-like, and its probably better if they are not. Human-like robots struggle to avoid being uncanny and their substantial bulk would make them impractical and hazardous for use in people’s homes.  In fact, useful non-humanoid assistive robots are already here—you may not even think of them as robots. Keeping your house clean is one of the many tasks that gets harder as you grow old.  But for a few hundred pounds, you can already buy a small robot that does the job of vacuuming your floor. By 2030, cleaning robots will be part of a larger ecology of smart devices, that will have transformed the way we perform household tasks making our living spaces easier to manage as we grow old.   We can see the seeds of this now, but there is much more to come. In research labs around the world, robots are being developed to perform household chores like washing, cleaning, tidying, preparing and serving food.

For older people with disabilities, robots also have the potential to assist with those aspects of care that require direct physical intervention. These include help with moving around (e.g. from sitting to standing), eating and drinking, dressing, and toileting. The goal is not to replace all human help—we will always want human-to-human social and physical contact to be a part of our lives.  However, we will also want privacy and control. These kinds of robotic appliances will allow people to regain control over their daily routines, they will preserve dignity and enhance independence.

Carers spend much of their time addressing people’s physical needs and thus cannot always prioritise social need, even though having a social connection is fundamental to human nature. Robots can help here too. Paro is an animal-like robot, resembling a baby arctic seal, that has large eyes, artificial fur, orients to sounds, and responds to gentle stroking by waving its paws and tail.  This artificial pet is proving to be an effective aid for people with Alzheimer’s Disease for use in settings, such as hospital wards, where keeping a living animal would be impractical. Two of Paro’s most useful functions are its capacity to calm patients who are distressed, and to encourage people to talk to one another by giving them something to talk about. Whereas Paro makes only animal sounds, Jibo is a table-top companion robot, currently under development, that can hold a simple, practical conversation and can perform tasks such as managing messages and organising a daily schedule.  This kind of functionality should be useful to an older person experiencing memory problems.  Social robots will become more sophisticated and engaging with time, but they won’t be able to converse like other people any time soon so there is no reason to think that they will replace human companionship.

One 2010 study forecast that annual UK public expenditure on long-term care will increase from around eleven billion to thirty-one billion by 2032; that’s almost a threefold increase. The cost of care escalates as those who need it move from their own homes, into residential care, and then into hospital. Older people prefer their own homes, suggesting a win-win scenario—both an economic and a welfare benefit from developing new technologies that allow people to age in place.  

There is no panacea for the challenges of the demographic shift, technological or otherwise.  To mitigate its worst effects will require actions on many fronts.  But by harnessing our imagination, resources and effort now, we can develop assistive robot technologies that will make the future a better place to age in.

One comment

  1. […] Across Europe, we are moving from a situation where we have four working people for every one potential dependent (someone either over sixty-five or below fifteen) to one where, by 2060, that ratio could be two-to-one.  R&AI can help mitigate some of the most significant effects of this changing demographic, including labour shortages due to the retirement of older skilled workers, and the capacity of our health and social care services to support an increasing proportion of the population that are older and frail.  A new generation of safe and human-friendly robots could assist in extending the active independent lives of older UK citizens both at work and at home.  At work, robotic technologies can reduce the physical toll of vigorous or repetitive work allowing older workers to remain productive.  Assistive robots can also help compensate for the anticipated shortage in nurses and residential care workers by helping professional carers in their work, and by reducing work-related injuries, such as chronic back-strain, that otherwise lead some experienced carers to retire early.  Working with teams of assistive robots, the role of a professional carer could become more skilled and respected, less physical, less routine, and more focused on the people being cared for.  […]

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