As the population in Holland ages, the Dutch are searching for ways to care for the elderly in spite of a shortage of professional caregivers. Dementia is on the rise as well, with predictions that point to a 60 percent increase in the number of elderly that require specialized care for memory loss over the next 15 years.
Johan Hoorn, a researcher at VU University in Amsterdam, is working on a solution that may help make the lives of the elderly easier. His carebot, Alice, is a robot that can integrate emotion regulation and moral reasoning to produce creative solutions to problems. Her child-sized face and soft British voice are specially designed to create the impression that Alice is the one that needs to be cared for. At just 22-inches, this robot has a needy air about her, which is part of her purpose.
Hoorn says, “You could tell an elderly person to open the window because he or she is suffocating. But if the robot says I am actually suffocating. Can you open the window for me? Then it becomes something that you do for someone else. And in this way people become much more activated, and that will help them feel better.”
Alice sits in a wheelchair, which doubles as a walker for the elderly. She explains, “I cannot walk. You have to push me around. You can leave the walker at home. A robot in a wheelchair is way cooler.”
Still under development in Hoorn’s laboratory, this advanced robot can manage small conversations, but her ability to reason is not fully developed. Eventually, she will be able to ask questions and record the answers for easy recall later.
Not everyone is excited about the arrival of carebots as an aide to the elderly. Jeroen van den Oever is head of Fundis, a company that manages many care homes. He does not appreciate or value the role a carebot may play in the day-to-day care and social lives of his patients and residents. He says, “The contact is not valuable. We fool ourselves if we think that some thing can replace social interest. It cannot.”
The carebot named Alice requires further work and development. Investors are needed to fund a team of 12 researchers, including psychologists, to move the project to completion over the next two years.
Other robots, designed specifically to assist the elderly, are in use in Japan. For example, RT Works of Osaka created Encore Smart, which is an assisted walker that takes people across rugged terrain safely. The Japanese expect the carebot market to increase from $140 million to $1 billion per year over the next twenty years.
Caregivers seem to be in favor of the carebot technological advances thus far. Western robots aren’t as human-like as Alice, but they are useful in ways that may help elderly people remain independent and stay in their own homes longer.