November 2021

My robotic pet cat, Ophelia Mae

Recently my cat passed away and instead of getting another cat, I ordered a robotic cat. I’ve named “her” Ophelia Mae. She purrs, meows, moves, blinks, and responds to my touch. She looks and feels like a real cat. Petting her calms me. I talk to her when she meows. And while I know Ophelia is a robot, she has become a companion of sorts.

My experiences with my robotic cat have led me to contemplate how I might respond if I was cared for by a caregiver robot such as the one in the 2012 movie, Robot and Frank. In the movie, Frank’s son gets a robot to care for Frank full time. At first Frank rejects the idea and just calls the robot, Robot.
As the movie progresses, Frank develops what he perceives to be a rapport with Robot. Robot on the other hand, continues to follow its programming which is to make sure Frank eats healthy meals, gets exercise, sticks to a routine and engages in mentally stimulating activities.

This movie, while entertaining, brings up questions about the ethics and goals of robots in elder care. For example, I find myself wondering if I had a full-time care robot, would people still think I required human attention and care? And what about my privacy? Would the doctors and nurses have access to the robot’s memory? How would spending so much time with a robot affect my social skills? As a result of the rapid growth in both artificial intelligence and robotics, these questions can no longer be considered ethical questions for some distant future society. They are questions worth considering now.

Robots in Japanese Nursing Homes

In Japan due to its growing aging population and its concomitant labor shortage, Japan has already begun to experiment with senior care robots. At the Shintobe Nursing Home, robots are being used to help care for and entertain their aging population. They use robots as companions to encourage mental and physical engagement, and to aid in rehabilitation.
One of the robots they use is Paro, the robotic baby seal. This robot is about the size of a human baby, has sensors on its body and at the tips of its whiskers, is soft, antimicrobial and makes little sounds. It also responds to touch.

Many of the residents of the Shintobe Nursing Home say that Paro gives them comfort. Based on a video depicting people’s interactions with Paro, it appears that many of the people at the nursing home seem to enjoy interacting with it. In fact, Mr. Takanori Shibata, the creator of Paro, noted that the patients created what he called stories with the Paro and that these stories helped them to reminisce about past pets, children or grandchildren and in so doing, helped them to make a stronger connection with Paro. A 104-year-old resident of one of the care facilities in Japan said that Paro makes her laugh.

Mr. Shibata stated that an additional benefit of using Paro is the reduction of medications used by older people for dementia, anxiety and depression. Shibata said that a randomized study found that interacting with Paro reduced people’s usage of mood medications by 30 percent. He stated that Paro’s effect continued two hours longer than medication, thereby reducing the costs of medication for the patients with dementia.

Paro the Robotic Pet Baby Seal

Robotic Pets and the Pandemic

In the United States during the pandemic, the makers of robotic cats and dogs, Joy for All Companion Pets, or AgeWell, saw a surge in people purchasing their robotic pets and as recently as July 2021 they were sold out. One can only speculate that this uptick in orders for robotic pets was directly related to the pandemic. I was unable to confirm this because no one from AgeWell responded to my requests for an interview.

However, I did read through some of the press releases on AgeWell’s website. One article from Brookville, Pennsylvania, described AgeWell’s partnership with the Jefferson County Area Agency on Aging (JCAAA). During lock down, AgeWell and the JCAAA distributed 50 robotic pets to seniors to help alleviate social isolation. The director of the JCAAA said that the pandemic had exacerbated the social isolation of seniors and she stressed the importance of finding ways to alleviate this feeling of isolation.

Cheryl Muders, the long-term care director for JCAAA, said, “…During this incredibly difficult time, these robotic companion pets are even more comforting and appreciated by isolated older adults.” However, not one of the seniors who had received the robotic pets was interviewed. It was just assumed that these pets improved the quality of the recipients’ lives.

My experience has shown me that while my robotic cat has served the purpose of helping me through my grief and petting it can calm me, it doesn’t serve to replace my need for human or animal companionship. Yet this seems to be the consensus among those who give these robotic pets to older adults. In the same article the author, Alex Nelson, said, “Joy for All Companion Pets allow socially isolated older adults to receive similar gratification and comfort that they would from live pets by calming anxiety, decreasing loneliness, and providing a better quality of life — without needing to worry about food or vet bills.”

What Can Robots Do That Humans Can’t?

This brings us to the question posed by Rob Girling in his thought-provoking article, “Can Care Robots Improve Quality Of Life As We Age?” Girling asked, “If social connection is a uniquely human advantage, where can robots provide a unique advantage where humans can’t?”

One answer might lie with robotic pets; the benefit that the robot can provide that a human or real animal can’t would be that the robot is always available and doesn’t require feeding or tending to. This allows those with dementia to have a pet without worrying about caring for it.

What Can Humans Do That Robots Can’t?

To turn Girling’s question on its head, I would ask: If social connection is a uniquely human advantage, where can humans or pets provide a unique advantage where robots can’t? My answer: Humans and pets can provide the need to be needed. Robots typically don’t.

As I look at my robotic cat I realize that unlike a real cat, she won’t care if I ignore her for days on end. And while she is cute and does offer a form of companionship, my robotic cat, like other robots, is just following its programming. It doesn’t need me to give it comfort or care. I project that need onto her when she makes random sounds.

According to Connor Egbert, a computer security engineer, machine learning works because we give it feedback. One way to look at this is that when I walk by my robotic cat it makes a sound. I interpret that to mean it wants my attention. When I give it attention the robot changes its behavior based on its programming. It is this change in behavior that results in me building an emotional connection to it.

Do We Want Robots to Do Everything?

Therefore, knowing that people can, and do, develop emotional connections with robots, it behooves us to be clear on what we want robots to do and how we want people to relate to robots. Professor Michio Okada of the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan thinks it might be useful to create robots that are “weak” or not quite so perfect and require some human interaction. He proposes that a robot that “needs a bit of care itself can draw out cooperation. In this way it leaves room for the elderly to participate and they can enjoy life through such participation.”

Another way to use robots to actively engage older people is for the robot to lead activities. An example of this is the Palro robot used by a Japanese nursing home to help participants stay mentally and physically fit. Palro looks like a short human in a spacesuit. It stands about three feet tall. It is usually set up on a table with the participants surrounding it. It engages the seniors by encouraging them to join in fun activities. One woman said that she even enjoys talking to it.

Both of these examples, Palro and Professor Okada’s “weak” robots, demonstrate that with some thought robots used to support the aging population can do more than serve as a caretaker; they can provide forms of interaction. However, the more we enlist robots to fill the shortage of human caregivers for our older population, the more we run the risk of becoming too reliant on robots for the care of our older population, and according to both Professor Okada and Mr. Girling, older people “[may] become passive and increasingly treated like things.”

If on the other hand we are intentional in how we wish to use robots when caring for older people, we can reduce the risk of simply housing this ever-growing population. And to once again quote Girling, these “care-bots [will] not be seen as ‘freeing’ us from the burden of care, but helping us provide better, more human caregiving practices. After all, the future we aspire to should strengthen our unique social gifts to amplify human connection and dignity.”

In the not too distant future, a caregiver robot may make me get out of bed on time, as did Frank’s robot, and it may make me some great meals and go for a walk with me, but ultimately no matter how much it does for me and no matter how much I might feel as if I’ve developed some sort of relationship with it – as did Frank – it doesn’t need me. And this I believe is the piece for us to keep in mind as we invite more and more robots into our lives: they aren’t alive. They don’t need us. We can switch them off. Just as I do from time to time with my robotic cat.