I recently returned from a trip to Japan to see first-hand the role robotics play in senior living communities. While robots are a growing topic throughout the North American seniors’ industry, Japan’s rapidly expanding elderly population and corresponding caregiver shortage has accelerated the technology.
In her 2014 paper published by Brookings, “How Humans Respond to Robots: Building Public Policy through Good Design,” Heather Knight discusses why she believes robotics will become an accepted part of daily life.
Her premise is that people create the need for machines and guide the plans for development. She writes, “Partnering the capabilities of people with those of machines enables innovation, improved application performance and exploration beyond what either partner could do individually.” As social beings, we instinctively seek to connect to things, and studies show that we tend to anthropomorphize — humanize — moving robots. Their capabilities make us comfortable with them, especially those designed with friendly “voices” and movement, including robotic pets that respond to touch.
Are you surprised that many people accept and respond to robots readily? It’s because of something called agency attribution — the practice of ascribing intent and intentional behavior to inanimate objects — and it’s part of being human. As Heather Knight says, “Imagine a falling leaf that weaves back and forth in the air following the laws of physics. Although it is in motion, that motion is not voluntary, so we call the leaf an object. If a butterfly appears in the scene, however, and the leaf suddenly moves in close proximity to the butterfly, maintaining that proximity even as the butterfly continues to move, we would immediately say the leaf had ‘seen‘ the butterfly, and that the leaf was ‘following’ it.”
So, it’s not a stretch to imagine that we’ll come to accept and even enjoy having robots assist us with day-to-day tasks and care. If robots take on more mundane tasks, it could potentially ease the problem of the caregiver shortage, one of the most-discussed topics in senior living. CEO Cheryl Wilson, RN, MA, LNHA, of St. Paul’s Senior Services in San Diego thinks way out of the box when it comes to labor shortages. She’d like to see robots used for back-of-the-house jobs like dishwashing, folding laundry and floor cleaning, making more employees available for jobs where they interact with residents, improving both parties’ experiences. Caregiving is different, and the human connection is irreplaceable, bringing comfort, empathy and humor to the resident experience and the satisfaction of making a difference in quality of life to staff members.