What Robots Can—and Can’t—Do for the Old and Lonely

In 2017, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, declared loneliness an “epidemic” among Americans of all ages. This warning was partly inspired by new medical research that has revealed the damage that social isolation and loneliness can inflict on a body. The two conditions are often linked, but they are not the same: isolation is an objective state (not having much contact with the world); loneliness is a subjective one (feeling that the contact you have is not enough)…Older people are more susceptible to loneliness; forty-three per cent of Americans over sixty identify as lonely. Their individual suffering is often described by medical researchers as especially perilous, and their collective suffering is seen as an especially awful societal failing.

…Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine advised health-care providers to start periodically screening older patients for loneliness, though physicians were given no clear instructions on how to move forward once loneliness had been diagnosed…

So what’s a well-meaning social worker to do? In 2018, New York State’s Office for the Aging launched a pilot project, distributing Joy for All robots to sixty state residents and then tracking them over time. Researchers used a six-point loneliness scale, which asks respondents to agree or disagree with statements like “I experience a general sense of emptiness.” They concluded that seventy per cent of participants felt less lonely after one year. The pets were not as sophisticated as other social robots being designed for the so-called silver market or loneliness economy, but they were cheaper, at about a hundred dollars apiece.

In April, 2020, a few weeks after New York aging departments shut down their adult day programs and communal dining sites, the state placed a bulk order for more than a thousand robot cats and dogs. The pets went quickly, and caseworkers started asking for more: “Can I get five cats?” A few clients with cognitive impairments were disoriented by the machines. One called her local department, distraught, to say that her kitty wasn’t eating. But, more commonly, people liked the pets so much that the batteries ran out…

A beige dog with a red bandanna went to an eighty-five-year-old man named Bill Pittman, who lives in a tidy mobile home filled with piles of quilts sewn by his deceased wife. “I’m legally blind. I can’t do a heck of a lot,” he told me. The dog’s barking broke up the days. “It’s good for a person who doesn’t have anybody else,” he said. “I went to get her some water the other day. She wouldn’t drink it.”

“Did you think she might?” I asked.

“No,” Bill said. “I just kid around with her.”

I hate to admit I wasn’t aware of all this. I’m a truly long-term geek. I was a geek before I was old enough to vote, to become an activist about many of the social issues that plague our society unnecessarily.

I thoroughly understand the connection folks of any age can make with a non-human that is significant to their lives. My pickup truck is 37 years old. The speedometer stopped working at 224,000 miles. It’s name is RUFF BOY.

My favorite quote from the article? “The English mathematician Alan Turing famously judged, in 1950, that a machine can be said to possess “intelligence” when it can fool a human into believing that it is not a machine. Producers of the latest companion robots don’t seem to care much about achieving Turing test-level authenticity. For a robot to win the affinity of a human, it doesn’t have to seem real; real enough will do.”

Anyway, RTFA. A truly worthwhile read, long and full of information. Kudos to the author, Katie Engelhart, and the NewYorker.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.