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In July 2018, I published an essay about Artificial Intelligence and the Caregiver Gap

A paragraph deep into the subject stated….

Some companies are in the early stages of testing AI (artificial intelligence) into the care-giving model. Hasbro and Brown University collaborated to create a Joy for All robotic cat to help the elderly…. The robotic cats provide some of the comfort that pets can offer.
However, AI adoption has been slow among older Americans. Despite claims that reluctance is due to privacy concerns, the biggest obstacle to use is AI’s unfamiliar and intimidating territory.

Just this week, New Yorker magazine’s Katie Engelhart provided a well-researched and lengthy contribution entitled “Home and Alone…Loneliness is a crisis among older Americans. Can robots keep them company?”

My essay three years ago focused on the caregiver gap and the potential for robots to narrow the overwhelming demand from an aging population. I also offered a peek into robotic pets that would soothe the elderly without demanding the care and cost of a live pet, which is the focus of this writing.

Nearly 30% of Americans over 65 live alone, mostly women and 43% over 60 years old identify as lonely. The damage caused by loneliness, described as feeling that the contact you have is not enough, and social isolation, where there is actually not enough contact with the outside world, is measurable. These subjective and objective situations can lead to inflammatory responses in the body, dementia, depression, high blood pressure and stroke.

Not only are those outcomes catastrophic for individuals and families, but AARP and Stanford University estimate the added cost to Medicare to be seven billion dollars a year because isolated individuals are sicker and stay in the hospital longer.

Enter the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. This public health crisis became the fuel behind earlier innovation. That slow conversion cited three years ago accelerated and the raison d’être was not so much the caregiver gap; it was predominantly loneliness.

Today, twenty-one states have distributed over twenty thousand Joy for All pets to help lonely people cope with their endless days. Even though they were inspired by toys made by Hasbro for four-to-eight-year-old girls, anyone in the eldercare profession would strongly assert that these dogs and cats are not toys.

Throughout the pandemic, human touch was almost non-existent. Routine home visits by caregivers were delivered virtually through telephone or video “check-in’s.” Isolation and the searing ache of loneliness quietly metastasized throughout thousands of households and long-term care facilities where fear prevailed and loved ones were separated for more than a year. These pets became companions where no others were allowed because of strict quarantines.

The Joy for All brand runs about $100. The cat responds to light and touch. It will meow when you turn the light off. The robot physically vibrates when they purr. The company’s robotic dog, on the other hand, responds to sound and touch. It barks when it hears a human voice — and it even has a heartbeat.

Another canine option is Tombot’s Jennie ($500)a lapdog that barks on command and has hyper-realistic facial features. They get increasingly high-tech and increasingly surreal: PARO ($6,400) is a baby harp seal with tactile sensors and a playful moan; AIBO ($2,900) by Sony is a plastic puppy with glimmering LED eyes and Wi-Fi-capable built-in cameras.

Scientists have found that robotic pets may have proven therapeutic benefits and could serve as a more accessible alternative to traditional pet therapy for people with dementia, easing irritability and apathy without requiring the expense and concentration needed to care for a live pet.

According to Claudia Rebola, a researcher and professor at the University of Cincinnati, preliminary observations from a study show that older adults in assisted and affordable living are welcoming the robots as companions. The older adults would name their pets and develop a routine with them, understanding they are robotic but treating them as real companions.

“From being a silent community where the hallways were empty, you see older adults coming out of their rooms, walking around and putting the pets on their walkers, talking about their pets and bringing the pets to see other robotic pets,” Rebola said. “The changes are so delightful to see.”

“Beyond being a tangible and observable companion that has an impact on the immediate environment of older adults,” said Rebola, “[the robotic pet is] also a simple, intuitive and ‘normal’ entity that serves as an incredible and powerful interface to communicate with older adults and even better, to support an adoption of technology for their health and well-being.”

However, there are ethicists who disagree, one being Dr. Robert Sparrow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at University of Melbourne, Australia. In a version of March of the Robot Dogs he not only worries, but rather strongly opposes the invention of robot pets.

“[this]heralds the arrival of what might be called “ersatz companions” more generally [Sparrow says.] That is, of devices that are designed to engage in and replicate significant social and emotional relationships.
This goal is misguided and unethical. While there are a number of apparent benefits that might be thought to accrue from ownership of a robot pet, the majority and the most important of these are predicated on mistaking, at a conscious or unconscious level, the robot for a real animal. For an individual to benefit significantly from ownership of a robot pet they must systematically delude themselves regarding the real nature of their relation with the animal. It requires sentimentality of a morally deplorable sort. Indulging in such sentimentality violates a (weak) duty that we have to ourselves to apprehend the world accurately. The design and manufacture of these robots is unethical in so far as it presupposes or encourages this delusion.”

Let’s think about this for a minute. True, there are concerns that we are manipulating the emotions of vulnerable individuals.  Nevertheless, are we missing the forest for the trees? Is this a point where the perfect becomes the enemy of the good?

In an ideal world, where meaningful connection between the elderly and society is commonplace, substituting robot pets for personal relationships may be cruel and dehumanizing. Our world is far from ideal. The much-needed benefits derived from touch and a life with purpose for the elderly, whether in their home or in a facility, are woefully deficient, if not missing in their entirety.

I ask, “do we have other practical solutions for the loneliness and isolation experienced by our older population that ethicists could showcase?” I mean “today solutions… not solutions over the next decade?”

I recognize the value academics, ethicists, and policy makers bring as they explore the landscape of risks and rewards in promoting best practices for our elderly. However, their righteousness can lose sight of the sense of immediacy needed to address their overwhelming feelings of abandonment, isolation, loneliness, and despair.

For any who have ever visited a home-bound elderly man or woman or walked the halls of a nursing home, and then closed the door behind them, it is all about gut-wrenching emotion. Robot pets can soothe that pain for those left behind that door, as delusional as some may believe it to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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