Japan has a problem. It has a rapidly aging population of senior citizens and not enough younger people to care for them (or for that matter to contribute to the social welfare programs that support them, but that’s another story).
Japan had hoped that robots would be the answer. They envisioned robots that would care for the elderly and staff nursing homes and hospitals. They have developed robots like Ri-Man, which can lift and carry hobbled senior citizens, and robots to serve as guides in hospitals. Manufacturers have sunk millions of dollars into efforts to develop such robots. Now they have concluded that robots are too expensive and impractical — and, even more important, are unwanted by patients and unwelcome, even in robot-friendly Japan. As one person plaintively said: “We want humans caring for us, not machines.”
No one should be surprised by this reaction. It is not just because Ri-Man and the other caregiving robots look like full-scale toys or embarrassing caricatures of the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Instead, the breathless and triumphal tone of the video introducing Ri-Man, below, demonstrates the disconnect between the views of the entrepreneurs and engineers developing the robots and the seniors who are supposed to be buying them. Elder care isn’t about technological advances or new frontiers in the science of robotics. Instead, it is about helping human beings who are failing and who seek companionship and comfort as they decline. Having to rely only on robots for help would be sterile and depressing.
The elderly want to know that there is some person who cares enough about them to help them and spend time with them. Can anyone blame them for concluding that metal and plastic robots are no substitute for a meaningful human connection?