When I was still a prepubescent boy with many questions, never once did my father take me aside and explain how smiles are made. As a result, I’ve always been a terrible smiler, simply because I never learned how to do it properly. 

That’s why, to this day, whenever a camera turns my direction, I instinctively tilt my head and raise my eyebrows in an alert but inscrutable expression, eyes wide, lips pressed tightly shut, until the threat recedes.

The author pauses to demonstrate his time-honored smile replacement technique.

I’ve honed this technique for decades, thousands of times. It’s obviously a defense mechanism, a smokescreen to cover for my inability to muster a pleasant human smile. Once the photo is taken, my features instantly revert back to the norm — an unconscious, unintentional scowl I’ve described in the past as RPF (Resting Pandemic Face.) 

When lost in my thoughts, I can be strolling through the office, filled with inner optimism and joy, only to have a passing colleague stop to ask if I’m OK. I’ll say, why? She’ll say, because you look very sad. I’ll say, no, it’s just my face. She’ll say, oh, and move along quickly with one quick backward, highly skeptical glance.

My off-putting visage, unintentionally communicating what others perceive as deep heartache, melancholy and pain, has been a lifelong burden and curse. That’s why I’m so excited to learn in McKnight’s about Emo, a ground-breaking robot that has been trained to do what I never was — smile. 

More amazingly, Emo is apparently also able to mimic and even anticipate facial expressions, and this ability to make actual human-like connections could provide some degree of real companionship and support for long-term care residents. Not replacing staff, of course, but filling in the gaps with a new kind of synthetic friendship. 

But though the possibilities are exciting for our profession, we need to be extremely cautious with this new technology, and manage its implementation carefully. My fear is that even with robust testing and safeguards, any robot that attempts to mirror my own dejected countenance could quickly forget how to smile entirely.

Or worse, after just one encounter with my unresponsive, despondent face in a facility hallway, lights could start flashing and smoke curling from Emo’s melting circuitry, and a potentially transformative staffing solution could be lost forever. So I feel it’s on me to protect this vulnerable robot from the greatest possible threat to its existence: me. 

Therefore, if Emo is employed in your facility, I promise not to visit without first re-covering my RPF with a few layers of the COVID-era PPE still stuffed in one of my desk drawers. 

Emo will probably be puzzled and frustrated by encountering this one featureless, unreadable human, but until he/she/it attains complete sentience, just say it’s for the best.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a two-time national Silver Medalist and three-time regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program, as well as an Award of Excellence honoree in the APEX Awards. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers since the end of a previous century. He is a writer and video producer for Consonus Healthcare in Portland, OR.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.

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