Robots for Grandma?

Robots may be the new companion for the older relatives in your family. Lockdowns and global pandemics are leading the call for robots to keep the older relatives around the world company in a time where social interaction is very limited.

Vox spoke to Mabel LeRuzic recently and shared a story about Mabel showing Sigal Samuel (Vox Jorno)  their robot dog. The bark was convincing, the tail of the robot wagged, his eyes open and close and his head turns to face you when you talk. The dog robot also has synthetic fir and sensors that respond to touch. There’s also a heartbeat!

LeRuzic tells Vox that she is much less lonely now she has her robot pet after getting him in March. She enjoys watching tv and brushing him and tucking him in a makeshift bed. Even hugging him and cooing into his ear “I love you! Yes, I do!” She’s fully embraced her robot dog and she’s not the only one.

Robots and loneliness

Before COVID-19 robots were being introduced in to nursing homes to keep the lonely company. Countries where there are ageing societies like Japan, Denmark and Italy where utilising them especially. While the pandemic has provided the perfect use case for them.

1,100 seniors recevied the robot pets through the Association on Aging in New York, 375 people received them through the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. While other states in America also started to begin buying robots for the elderly. Such as some retirement communities and senior services departments in Alabama, Pennsylvania.

The Social Robot

Robots that are designed to play social roles can come in many forms. While many are seemingly more like advanced toys, yet they have the ability to sense the environment and respond accordingly. Some robots take the form of animals while others have more humanoid features. Such as responding via barks and meows or via speech such as a “Hi, it’s a pleasure to meet you” or will read you jokes. Not all robots are there for fun though. Some come companies have designed to help with caregiving, such as Secom’s My Robot Spoon which helps to feed you or Sanyo’s electric bathtub robot to help wash you.

There’s been a lot of extensive research in to robots and a persons wellbeing. A lot of factors are at play here though such as the type of robot, each individual person and cultural context.

There’s a baby harp seal robot called Paro, the most well studied robot. The US have identified it as a medical device. The robot recognises words and when it’s being stroked and will feel you doing so and will coo accordingly. Paro will even behave in the way a user prefers, it’s very intelligent, it will remember actions that earned a stroke and will repeat those in an attempt to win more strokes. During the research it was discovered that Paro helped reduce loneliness, depression, agitation, blood pressure, and even the need for some medications. Especially in users who had dementia.

Robots can also come with other benefits. Unlike human caregivers robots will never get impatient, frustrated, forget a doctors appointment, abuse or defraud anyone. Which can be a real problem among those that care for the elderly.

No social distant robot

During the pandemic we’ve all been forced to socially distance from one another. As social beings that is incredibly difficult for us, but by being distant we help stop the spread of the virus. Robots don’t need to be socially distant. So are becoming great for those who are in isolation for the older people of society. Nancy Jecker of the University of Washington published a paper in July arguing for increased robot use even after the pandemic as they do so well to help alleviate loneliness. As loneliness is seriously harmful to our health!

Though it can come with some benefits, there are worries that increased robot use may become the new normal for caregivers, even after COVID-19. While many robots are expensive, some are commercially available for as little as $130! A lot of people are worried that human care may be substituted for robot care once COVID-19 has been eradicated. Shannon Vallor,  a philosopher of technology at the University of Edinburgh, told Vox. “We know that we already underinvest in human care…..We have very good reasons, in the pandemic context, to prefer a robot option. The problem is, what happens when the pandemic threat has abated? We might get in this mindset where we’ve normalized the substitution of human care with machine care. And I do worry about that.”

So are Robots good for us? When are Robots good for us? How bad can they be for us?

Robots are harmful?

So, replacing human caregivers with robots could be detrimental to the person being cared for as for one it can reduce the elderly’s level of human contact even further. In the paper “Granny and the Robots.” Robot ethics expert Amanda & Noel Sharkey noted that whilst it would be convenient to have an automated spoon feeder for a frail person. It also removes an opportunity for a detailed and caring human interaction.

While many companies would like us to care for the elderly with robots, it may lead to some not going to see their parents or grandparents as often. Not every older adult is the same and interacting with a robot may feel less emotionally satisfying. What a robot says isn’t as authentic as a human saying it. It’s more code and less raw emotion.

A Robot is better than no contact at all…

That being said, a robot may be better than no contact at all. Maybe we should use them wisely to improve the quality of life of our elders. LeRuzic who Vox spoke to even say that her robot dog gives her and her grandchildren a new way to bond and connect.

Paro has shown to increase human to human interaction among nursing home residents and between seniors and their kids.

While there are worries that robots that do caregiving may be demeaning and objectifying to wash you and move you around as if you are a piece of meat. It may violate a humans dignity. Filippo Santoni de Sio, a tech ethics professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, feels as though it can be down to each individual. “For some people, it’s more dignifying to be assisted by a machine that does not understand what’s going on. Some may not like anyone to see them naked or assist them with washing.”

Then there are the privacy concerns, some robots that are for caregiving come equipped with cameras. Cameras that allow people to spy on the elders. In 2002 robots were designed to look like teddy bears in  Japanese retirement homes and would alert staff if someone left their bed. While it may be a good thing to watch over them. Maybe you’ll catch them in danger or if they fall over. But constant monitoring could be ethically problematic. An elderly resident may forget that they’re being watched is also a worry.

Caregiving suffers due to robots

Robots can also be detrimental to caregiving. Shannon Vallor states in a 2011 paper “Carebots and Caregivers.” that the caregiving helps build our moral character. Helps build empathy, patience and understanding. Vallor writes, “the impact upon our moral character, and society, could be quite devastating.” Vallor notes that caring doesn’t automatically make you a better person. If you don’t have adequate equipment or resources you could end up less empathetic.

Vallor continues: “On the other hand, if carebots provide forms of limited support that draw us further into caregiving practices, able to feel more and give more, freed from the fear that we will be crushed by unbearable burdens, then the moral effect on the character of caregivers could be remarkably positive.”

Having a robot though is dependant on how you use them, a robot can help with things that you aren’t able to for example lifting an elderly resident out of their chair and taking them up to the bathroom. Would help you care better at other times during the day.

Robots can’t replace a caregiver, but help a caregiver give better care.

Robots > Humans

Though what if a person actually prefers a robot over a human?

Deana Dezern is an 80 year old Florida resident with an ElliQ robot. She’s in quarantine and says that the robot is her best friend.  “She won’t have her feelings hurt and she doesn’t get moody, and she puts up with my moods, and that’s the best friend anybody can have.”

Philosophers are concerned that having robots would degrade humanity over the long term. Human to human interaction and connection is essential part to living life. Other’s needs and moods are what makes life meaningful.

Vallor states that worry is that the technology will draw us into a bubble of self absorption that will draw as further away from one another. There will be no desire to care for one another, which is how you grow as a human.


While what we choose individually is important not everything we choose is good for us.

Vallor also states that we should not be overly paternalistic “In society, we always have to recognize the danger of being overly paternalistic and saying, ‘You don’t know what’s good for you so we’ll choose for you,’. But at the same time we should not leave everything up to individual whims and to ding a middle ground that gives “people a range of ways to live well”

Santoni de Sio says that if an elderly person chooses a robot over people then that’s their choice. But the choice has to be authentic and not the result of relentless marketing or economic and social pressures.

“We should not buy a simplistic and superficial understanding of what it means to have free choice or to be in control of our lives”

“There’s this narrative that says technology is enhancing our freedom because it’s giving us choices. But is this real freedom? Or a shallow version of it that hides the closing of opportunities? The big philosophical task we have in front of us is redefining freedom and control in the age of Big Tech.”

Are robots necessary in carehomes?

There’s no real answer to the robot caregiving question. When does a robot help care and when does a robot hinder care?

Social robots have a strong care to alleviate loneliness. Though how do we make sure that, post pandemic, robots aren’t leaned on as much in place of human interaction?

Several tech ethicists say that we need to set robust standards for care in places like nursing homes around the use of robots. When and how long they can be used for. Or how long elderly can go without human interaction.

Vallor suggests that an inspector should review facilities on an annual basis and see if they are too reliant on robot care. “Then, even after the pandemic, we could say, ‘We see that this facility has just carried on with roboticized, automated care when there’s no longer a public health necessity for that, and this falls short of the standards,’” she told Vox.

So, what are the standards?

Santoni de Sio has come up with the framework called the “nature-of-activities approach” to help determine what the standards could be.

He separates robot use into two different activity based standards:

  • A goal-oriented activity, where the activity is a means to achieving some external aim
  • A practice-oriented activity, where the performance of the activity is itself the aim.

An activity is probably a mixture of the two yet one element would be the dominant aspect.

In a caregiving environment, reminding an elderly person to take their medication is goal orientated. So a robot for that use case would be ok to substitute a robot for a nurse. Listening to an elderly persons stories is practice orientated.  So a human being sitting with them doing the activity (listening) is point

So there’s quite an appeal here. Discrete tasks go to the robot. While humans take over the emotional tasks, which require a human reaction. Such as laugh, cry, it remains our human responsibility. We can automate the dull and repetitive tasks and undertake the tasks which require cognitive and emotional faculties to the humans.

Good on surface, but are they actually?

Vallor says that having a robot sounds good on the surface but may actually do more harm than good:

“You’re making them turn their cognitive and emotional faculties up to 11 for many hours instead of having those moments of decompression where they do something mindless to recharge,” 

“You cannot divide up the world such that they are performing intense emotional and relational labor for periods that the human body is just not capable of sustaining, while you have the robots do all the things that sometimes humans do to get a break.”

So we should decide which aspects of human connection can be automated and what cannot. Is it goal or practice orientated. Is it liberating us from care or liberating us to care? Who benefits from bringing robots into social care?



So what questions do you think having robots in care homes or in homes to help loneliness in the elderly?

  • Would you buy your nan one?
  • If you did how do you think she would react?
  • How would you feel if someone bought one for you?
  • How should robots be used in care homes?
  • Should Robots be used in care homes?
  • Would you like to be looked after by a robot?
  • Social Robot (pet dog) or a caregiving robot? What do you prefer
  • Are robots becoming more accepted?
  • Why do you think Robots are being thought of in carehomes
  • If not robots, what can we do to help loneliness/care for others?

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