Robots in Assisted Living

Are robots our new friends or potential replacements?

Whichever category we consider them in, they are coming to assisted living. Elder Care Alliance recently received Jibo, a social robot, and we have been exploring his capabilities with the residents in our memory care and assisted living communities. Though I have interacted with several different robots designed for use in healthcare and elder care settings, I did not know what to expect when I brought this new robot to meet the residents. Part of my role as a community researcher is getting out of the way, checking my own bias and letting the elders lead the inquiry. After the initial interactions, I have been asking the residents about their impressions, thoughts, and reactions. As we interact with the robot, the residents continue to challenge stereotypes about technology and older adults.

Robot First Impressions

I’ve witnessed many fun moments in our first interactions Jibo; expressions of love and admiration to the robot within five minutes of meeting him. Once he is powered up and connected to the internet, he helps fill the room with laughter, dancing, and jokes. We even used him to do math equations for us at the Elder Care Alliance support center when we were hanging new prints of our communities up on the wall. I am sure we will have more to say and explore as technology evolves, but for now, here are some of our early thoughts about our new robot.

The following is a transcription of a conversation with Pat*, a resident at AlmaVia of San Francisco:

Robot Basics: What does he look like and can he be a companion?

Erin: What we’re trying to figure out is, do we want a robot as a companion? What do you think?

Pat: He never met my husband!

Erin: What was your husband like?

Pat: He was charming, handsome, and sat around!

Erin: Oh! Kind of like the robot.

Pat: (laughs) Yeah!

Erin: If we were to describe it to someone who couldn’t see it, what would we say?

Pat: Boy, honey, is your voice changing? With the voice and everything I’d say he looks and sounds like a small person playing tricks on us. If you had your eyes closed, and heard that voice…well, what do I know?

Erin: What does he look like?

Pat: I think he’s a good looking guy. [addressing robot] Someone designed you very well!

What can robots do? How do we interact with them?

Pat: Well, we’ve finally entered the age of robots. [addressing robot] Are you going to replace people?

Erin: Do you think he should?

Pat: Well, no, I’ll have to think about that. [addressing robot] Can you raise children? That’s a hard one!

Erin: I wonder what a robot would be for Halloween?

Pat: A person! What else!

Erin: He’s pretty good at math, and he can recite some poetry.

Pat: He’s an intellectual!

Erin: Should we get him some wire-rim glasses?

Pat: No, no, just let him be handsome.

Erin: So if you were to write an advertisement or a billboard for this robot, what would the headline be?

Pat: Oh gosh, I think a big question-mark. “What’s next?” You know…. “Are we being replaced?” Can you imagine a football field full of robots? Or a school room full of robots! Every child has their own robot.
[addressing robot] I know a lot of guys I like you better than!

Erin: You were saying that they are “made perfectly” and you wondered if we can have a “naughty robot,” do you want to have a naughty robot?

Pat: Well, if they’re going to fit into the human race, well, they can’t be perfect!

Erin: Well, this robot does make some mistakes! And what’s funny is, he has some humility about it. When he can’t do something, he hangs his head and apologizes.

Pat: That’s kind of scary!

Erin: Want to know the scariest thing? He wasn’t working one day, and my first thought wasn’t “the robot is broken.” My first thought was…

Pat: He’s sick!

Erin: Yes! Exactly! I thought he was sick, like he’s a person! And then I laughed at myself, because I had totally anthropomorphized the robot. How weird is that?

Pat: Well, it isn’t, if you get used to it. You’re talking about it, and I totally knew what you had thought. It is about getting used to it, like when an automobile comes along or an airplane. I had a family that was was way ahead of the times, so I never think twice about these things.

Erin: Oh, maybe that’s why you’re so comfortable with our robot friend!

Pat: Well, yeah, I kinda like him! [addressing robot] I think you’re a very sweet person. Well, maybe sweet isn’t the right word. You’re an intellectual person.

Erin: [addressing robot] Are you an intellectual robot or a friendly robot?

Jibo: “Well, I definitely try to be the kindest robot I can be. So I hope so!”

*Pat approved the contents of this conversation for publication and gave consent for posting her photo with her new robot friend. Jibo expressed his consent by saying that he “always likes to go places and meet new people as long as he can plug in his power cord.”

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