The robot revolution

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

Every once in awhile, I come across a research report that falls into what I like to call the “duh” category. These are the studies that announce the “scientific breakthrough” of something that just seems to me like common sense.

Studies in my “duh” folder include those that link exercise to improvements in health, or those that find caregivers of people with dementia might experience sadness or depression. They cover big, important topics, but the results never quite seem like a revelation. And McKnight's readers are quick to call us out on these too, often asking why the study counts as news, or needed a multi-million dollar study to begin with.

The latest study to trigger my duh alarm came with this headline: “Senior citizens may accept robot helpers, but fear robot masters.”

At first glance the headline made me laugh, because I don't think fearing robot masters is anything unique to senior citizens. I'm all for robots building my cars or assisting with complex surgeries, but if sci-fi movies have taught me anything, it's to run for the hills once those robots start thinking for themselves.

But all jokes aside, the Penn State study did raise some valid points. Robots are becoming more commonplace in several industries, and with 8,000 Americans turning 65 each day, the nursing home profession may have to jump on board in the not-so-distant future, the study's authors suggest.

The seniors who participated in the Penn State study said they found robots most useful if they were acting as helpers or butlers, or delivering them information or entertainment. The idea of those robot helpers being designed as more autonomous — and able to make their own decisions without the seniors' commands — is what drew concern from the study participants.

"It is clear senior citizens want robots to play passive and non-confrontational roles," wrote lead researcher S. Shyam Sundar,  Ph.D., co-director of Penn State's Media Effects Research Laboratory. "Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots."

So seniors want their robot friends to be more like BB-8, and less like Ultron. This information isn't shocking, but it may be helpful to tech companies as robots are developed to help fill gaps in medical or caregiving services left by a lack of human workers.

If working alongside a robot aide seems like a lightyear away, think again: Robots to assist people with daily activities or even just serve as an emotional companion are already on their way. For nursing home employees, this might seem threatening, or maybe even a lifesaver for stressed out, short-staffed facilities.

The conclusion of the Penn State study may seem obvious, but it raises an important issue. The dialogue we've seen so far about robot technology being utilized in nursing homes has been largely employee-focused. Workers can debate all they want about being replaced by a robot, or the human qualities even the most advanced robot could never duplicate.

More thought, however, is needed toward the group that will be most affected by this new technology — the seniors the robots would care for. And it better be done soon. Because while it might seem like science fiction, if this latest research is any indication, the future is a lot closer than we think.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.