Will Hollywood Start a National Conversation about Care Robots?

| August 22, 2012

A new movie called features an older man who lives alone until his son presents him with his very own care robot. The film has already started a conversation about why Americans still think of care robots as “science fiction.”

Movie audiences around the country got their first taste of the future of aging when Robot & Frank opened in theaters in late August. 

The film tells the story of Frank, a frail older man who lives alone until his son brings him the perfect gift: a white robot with a human-like body. The robot's mission is to clean Frank's house, cook his meals, plant his garden and keep him engaged in life.

Film critics classify the film as "science fiction." But robot engineers around the world know better. Those engineers firmly believe in the film's basic premise - that care robots have an important role to play in the lives of older people.

Robot Revolution began in Japan

According to Slate Magazine, elder care robots have been a priority for more than a decade in countries with rapidly aging populations. Japan has already given the world a host of robot prototypes that could serve as companions and helpmates for the elderly.

Slate predicts that there will be many more robots coming on the market in the future as governments around the world support robot development projects in hopes of finding ways to provide quality care with a diminishing direct-care workforce. The European Union's Seventh Framework Program, for example, awarded 7.8 million euros to the CompanionAble Project, which is field-testing a care robot called Hector. Hector works collaboratively with a smart home and remote control center to better support older people living at home.

Care Robots: What's Not to Like?

So with all this interest in robots, why are care robots still viewed as science fiction? The problem, says Slate, lies with the elderly, not with the robots. Older people don't yet feel comfortable with robots for a number of reasons:

  • It's hard to communicate with robots. Many robots can now recognize voice commands. But good elder care requires the ability to read nonverbal cues. Robots just aren't there yet.
  • One robot can't do it all. Older people have diverse needs. It's not likely that one robot could meet them all. For example, it may be a while before one robot could give complete care to a person who needs shots to manage diabetes, guidance to compensate for vision impairment and entertainment to combat loneliness.
  • Not all robots are lovable. American robot engineers have a lot to learn from the Japanese about the art of creating human-like robots. Americans aren't likely to accept care robots until they look like us, says Slate.

Future Acceptance

Acceptance of care robots among the elderly will take some time - and will require some patience on the part of robot developers, says Slate. That acceptance process may not be complete until today's tech-savvy young people grow old.

"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," says Slate