Robots don’t wipe butts – future of elder care?

Gerontology and Geriatrics

If we build them, will they be accepted? The Simpsons S31:E12 does not satirize issues about privacy and personal information – just butt wiping. [1] Might co-design and co-production of care robots improve acceptance? [2]

The crew

A team of international researchers, a model of robot acceptance, a small cross-sectional study across Japan, Ireland, and Finland.

The challenge

“Although care robots are being developed and improved at a rapid pace, their social acceptance has been limited.”

• Science Daily > “Care robots: Ethical perceptions and acceptance” by Chiba University (August 29, 2023) – The increased burden of elder care may lead to a shortage of caregivers in a decade’s time.

The global population of people older than 65 years of age is rapidly increasing the need for care. Although care robots are a promising solution to fill in for caregivers, their social implementation has been slow and unsatisfactory. A team of international researchers has now developed the first universal model that can be employed across cultural contexts to explain how ethical perceptions affect the willingness to use care robots.


[1] The Simpsons, Season 31, Episode 12 “The Miseducation of Lisa Simpson

Listen up.

These nerds have found out something terrifying. This school was supposed to prepare you for the jobs of the future. But in the future, all the jobs we’ve learned here will be done by robots. The only job left for humans will be …

Elder care!

(all gasping)

The one job even robots won’t do.

What about STEM?

Here’s what it really stands for.

Sponge Bathing

[The new STEM school self-destructs when the kids’ user ratings go to zero stars.]

Yeah, but we escaped having to take care of old people.

No, that’s still the only job that’s going to exist.

Now we just won’t know how to do it.

(both groan)

[2] Adaptive programming of robot companions is dramatized in the movie Robot & Frank (2012).

… the filmmakers wanted Robot & Frank to explore the subject … technology is “not bad or good but it will change the way we relate to each other.”

Journal-writer Aino-Kaisa Koistinen … discusses how its plot and bond between the characters and robots was “…making visible the powerlessness of these old men in terms of deciding for their own care.”

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2 comments on “Robots don’t wipe butts – future of elder care?

  1. Social robot

    Can robots bring more meaning to life? Social robots. Was there an episode about this in the TV Series Twilight Zone? (e.g., “The Lonely,” 1959) – “warm technology to enhance human connection … a feeling of social purpose and everyday joy.”

    Well, there was the movie Robot & Frank (2012).

    This article discusses the challenges of designing a social robot that embodies “an operational understanding of humanness” – so the robot is not creepy.

    • Wired > “My Parents’ Dementia Felt Like the End of Joy. Then Came the Robots” by Kat McGowan (Jan 4, 2024) – Forget the crappy caregiver bots and puppy-eyed seals. When my parents got sick, I turned to a new generation of roboticists – and their glowing, talking, blobby creations.

    [image caption] Šabanovic’s conference room at Indiana University is like a robot zoo.

    … the roboticists I learned about are trained in anthropology, psychology, design, and other human-centric fields. … They want technology for joy and for flourishing, even as they near the end of life.

    You may … remember their [social robots’] long history of market failures. RIP Kuri, Cozmo, Asimo, Jibo, Pepper, and the rest of their expensive, overpromising metal kin. [The research device] QT [qtrobot] is not like them.

    … the point is to test QT’s evolving conversational skills to see what behaviors and responses people will accept from a robot and which come across as confusing or rude.

    … the superpower of social robots: … They grab hold of our psyche. … Even though we know better, we respond to them as if they were alive. … Children learn more from a robot than a screen. Adults trust robots more readily than computers. Dogs obey their commands.

    [Some background on the robot seal pup Paro. ] … the cuddly seal improved quality of life; it got people to interact more, reduced stress, and eased depression. … it would become an icebreaker or a social lure.

    The blobs [each the size and shape of a pumpkin] are called Sam, and together they form a social robot boiled down to its essence: an invitation to connect [interact, play].

    You learn a lot about people by hanging out with robots. QT made it plain to me how much human interaction depends on tiny movements and subtle changes in timing.

    For now, there’s no shiny new pal that will fix my parents’ lives.

  2. A new way to connect?

    Elder care. Human attention. Whether at home, at an assisted living center, or in a nursing home. The cost. The workers. Turnover. The role of technology.

    My mom had in-home contracted caregivers for her last few years. During my extended visits, it always took awhile to learn all their names – posted as notes on the refrigerator. The going rate was ~$20 an hour. A relentless arithmetic.

    My mom had been the primary caregiver for my dad. It really wore her out. And that’s likely the same scenario for many families – carrying the joy & burden as long as practical.

    So, what’s changing? The possibilities. Better than community room TV screens, eh. With a human touch?

    But first, a historical parallel: prior to the Industrial Revolution, with spinners & weavers in the British textile industry.

    • LA Times > “How robots could help solve the caregiving conundrum” by Virginia Postrel (March 17, 2024) – The math doesn’t care about our feelings … is the way out of this dilemma radical technological innovation?

    … paying [nursing assistants in nursing homes] so little for such important work strikes many people as wrong. But the problem isn’t indifference to the welfare of caregivers. As California recently learned [re the state budget deficit], raising wages isn’t that easy.

    Suppose you want to hire aides to take care of your elderly mother in her home. There are 8,760 hours in a normal year … . At $20 an hour, that’s $175,200. Few can afford such outlays.

    If robots can avoid being spooky, intimidating or patronizing, they could even be enjoyable, capable and patient companions — at least for those who want them. The trick is to create technology that can adapt to the individual. Some people might want to chat or play games with a robot. Others instead embrace the impersonal nature of a machine helper as a useful intelligent appliance rather than a buddy. A robot caregiver could allow the frail elderly to preserve their sense of privacy and personal space. Having a machine help you change clothes or use the toilet is less intrusive than hiring a stranger to do the same thing.

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