Q&A  | 

Robots will be tools for older adults and care givers in the future, by MIT Media Lab researcher Anastasia Ostrowski

“Robots will also be “helpful companions”, meaning they will collaborate with older adults to reach their goals.”

Tags: 'Robots'

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Anastasia K. Ostrowski is a design researcher at the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robot Group, working with Professor Cynthia Breazeal and Dr. Hae Won Park, the group being a pioneer of social robotics and human robot interaction.

Her research focuses on how we can empower people in the design of artificial intelligence (AI) driven socially persuasive technologies such as social robots or smart speakers.

She advocates for an active role of seniors in this field: “Currently, one of my interests is focused on collaborating with older adults to co-design social robots through art, interviews, prototyping, and other techniques.”

The proportion of the population that is 65 years of age or older is expected to rise to 30% by 2060 thus leading to a huge shortage of care personnel. Is there an alternative to robots for the care of older people in the near future?

Robots are most likely only part of the future of innovations in the care of older people. 

Care of older adults will be changing in the future where we adapt to an increase in the older adult population and shortages of care personnel. Innovative care programs like home-hospitals where patients are treated in their homes instead of a hospital are one example. 

Telehealth can be leveraged in these situations but also on a routine basis. We’ve already seen an expansion of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. When we think about older adult care in the future, we need to take a systems approach considering what technology, health system and public system changes are necessary and will be best incorporated into older adult care.

What can and should the role of care robots be?

In our work and others, older adults express desires for social robots to assist with daily activities, ranging from physical assistance (i.e. reaching objects, retrieving objects) to scheduling, reminders or information assistance to socio-emotional support (i.e. positive psychology, facilitating connections). 

With any of these potential activities that robots could support older adults, it is essential that robots are placed in a position where they facilitate connection to care workers, family, and/or friends.

Do you think robots can contribute to the dehumanization of elderly care?

I don’t think that technology contributes to the dehumanization of older adult care. It’s how we use the technology. As we’ve shown in our work, social robots can be used to strengthen connections between people. 

When we co-design social robots with older adults, their vision of future technologies is for technologies to facilitate connections between people. We need to aim for robots and other embodied artificial intelligent technologies to be used as another tool in older adult care, not a replacement or substitution for human-human connection. We need these technologies to be tools that facilitate human-human care and connection. 

Are older people sufficiently involved in the design of care robots?

In the current state of robot development, older adults are not sufficiently involved in the design of care robots. 

When older adults are involved, they can be involved to varying degrees. Through a user-centered design approach, older adults may be involved as informants in the evaluation of the technology, perhaps through focus groups or interviews. 

Through co-design or a participatory design approach, older adults can become co-creators of the technology and its interactions. With this approach, technology developers work hand-in-hand with researchers to understand older adults’ thoughts, ideas, concerns, and hopes for technology design and provide tools and methodologies for older adults to design interactions and technologies.

In your work you mention that not many have studied the long-term impact of care robots on community-level engagement. In your experience, what could this impact be?

In one of our previous studies, a community of older adults in an assisted living center lived with a social robot in their community area for three weeks. Older adults felt more socially connected to one another in that time period. During those three weeks, older adults engaged with the robot themselves but also taught one another how to use the robot, introduced the robot to each other, and fostered their interpersonal relationships with one another. We saw the robot act as a “social catalyst”, promoting relationships and connections among the older adults. 

The impact of this demonstrates how this technology can be used to facilitate communication and connection between people. Also, importantly, it supports designing and developing technology interactions that prioritize connecting people to one another and having a human complement with technologies. 

Can you give us any cutting edge example of robotics and AI currently in use for the care of older people?

Pepper, Paro, AIBO, and Joy for All Companion Pets are all robots that have been used in the care of older adults, most of them for their companion-like abilities. These robots and additional robots including Jibo and Nao are also being used in research with older adults. 

Researchers and companies are continuing to develop robots and interactions for the robots with the goal of having these robots be autonomous in the wild. Older adults are also becoming more a part of this process as we’ve been doing in our co-design work with older adults. As system capabilities expand and robots are developed to more easily adapt to social contexts and people’s varying needs, we will see more robots being used in the care of older adults. 

Robots can be designed to collaborate with older adults to help them achieve long-term goals, such as medical adherence, exercise regimens, and staying socially connected. Pillo is one such robot that has been designed to assist older adults with their medical regimen. Mabu is another robot designed to help patients dealing with chronic illnesses. 

Can the relationship we develop with robots amount to real social interaction?

We will develop relationships with robots, but the bigger question is what type of relationship and does that equal social interaction. We already develop relationships with non-human things, similarly to how we develop relationships with our pets. Our relationship with robots may be like this. 

These robots will also be “helpful companions”, meaning they will collaborate with older adults to reach their goals. 

Relational abilities can help make interactions with social robots more successful, allowing older adults to thrive in their lives as they achieve their long-term goals. I think the more important point is that, regardless of how we engage with robots, we will always need human-human connection and social interaction. When designing robots, we should prioritize how these technologies can facilitate and promote human-human engagement and relationships.