Robots: Coming to Retirement Homes Near You

Last week, I asked a friend who lives in Silicon Valley and works at Google: “What is the hottest area in technology right now?” Without hesitation he said, “Machine learning/robots.” I thought he migh say cloud computing. Nevertheless, many people have mixed feelings about robots. The common concern is that machines are going to take jobs from traditional workers and then unemployment will skyrocket.

Robots: Coming to Retirement Homes Near You

Not enough robots?

Surprisingly, it seems like robots are not filling enough jobs. Say what? Let me explain. The economy can only expand in real terms (after accounting for inflation) in two ways. The first is to hire more workers. The problem is we are already at the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, and because of low birthrates, the labor force is expected to grow at less than 1% per year for the next couple of decades.

The other way to grow the economy, and achieve a higher standard of living, is to get higher productivity from each existing worker. Yet productivity growth has declined sharply since 2004 and is basically flat at this point.

Our greatest opportunity to raise living standards:

Robots are one of our greatest opportunities to raise productivity, economic growth, and living standards. Many people think of robots as working in industrial factories, but consumer robots will also have a huge impact on society over the next couple of decades. One application will be robots that help seniors. Self-driving cars are a form of robot that will enable seniors to remain mobile and independent after they are no longer confident with their own driving skills. These self-driving cars will be voice-activated with numerous help features built in.

Robots to transform caregiving:

Another major area that robots are likely to transform is caregiving for an aging population. Robots will help seniors perform activities of daily living. If you are shaking your head right now, you should know that this is already happening. The first generation of “care robots” are prompting people to follow certain prescribed guidelines like drinking water, taking medicines, or eating three meals a day. The robot also remembers whether you have taken your medicine, and it can notify emergency personnel when necessary (like life alert).

Robots are not designed to replace human relationships and will not fill the same social needs that human caregivers can provide. However, they could greatly supplement human caregivers when seniors need 24/7 care, or provide care during the day while an adult child, who still works, provides care in the evenings. It is important to get the small details right so that people are not irritated by their robot. This area is still in its infancy, but great strides are being made to make robots more polite, empathetic, and socially intuitive. The whole idea behind machine learning is the machine learns your likes and dislikes. In that regard, robots may be more trainable than your spouse.:)

Robots may enable senior citizens to stay in their homes longer before requiring a move to assisted living facilities, and they may also significantly reduce the cost of such facilities. The yearly cost of a robot is about 20 percent of the cost, on average, of hiring full-time caregivers. The NY Times reported on a couple that was testing out a robot at their retirement community in in Walnut Creek, California. The couple’s original motivation was being able to connect more easily with their families via video calls. They immediately saw the benefit of their robot, whom they named Jimmy. The maker of Jimmy, OhmniLabs, claims that within 5 years, its robot will be able to do laundry, wash the dishes, and clean the house. Now I want one.

Have a great week.