As a 1970s kid who owned one of the earliest model PCs, and as a middle-aged woman who relies on my children to expose me to new music, I once assumed that young people would be our harbingers of all things trendy or futuristic.
We can credit Hollywood for helping us imagine that either astronauts (2001, Alien) or youngish, lonely men (Her, Ex Machina) would be the first to have long, meaningful conversations with their AI companions.
But having written a novel featuring a robotic nurse—which also required reading more deeply about AI, as well as visiting East Asian countries that embrace robots more readily—I’ve started to question those scenarios.
Forget NASA or the Millennials. The first stage of the social robot revolution, I’m starting to believe, will be led by everyday folks over the age of 50.
Here are some of the signs.
First, of course, we’re all aging fast: in the US over-65s are 15% of the population now and will rise to 25% of the population by 2060. (In Japan, over-65s are already one-quarter of the population and overextended families and governments alike are struggling to cope with the demographic imbalance.)
Second, we love our independence. In one survey, 80 percent said they hoped to “age in place” rather than be sent to a nursing home, even beyond the age of eighty. AI gadgets that might help us remember to take medication—or prod us into taking a walk—are entering the market. This year’s ElliQ, a social robot that looks like a desk lamp, has joined other models, like Mabu, a wellness coach robot. Neither are promoted as replacements for either expert medical care or human relationships, but like Siri and Alexa, these products are training us—for good, bad or most likely both—to readily accept chatty robots in our midst.
Despite the fact that a chatbot passed the Turing test in 2014, meaning that the era when AI can simulate human-like encounters has arrived, neither ElliQ or Mabu can engage in complex conversation. In fact, some robot designers opt for no speech or highly simplified appearances precisely to manage our expectations. Robots aren’t our best friends, yet. The designers want consumers—especially elder or vulnerable ones—to recognize the difference.
But at the same time, AI keeps advancing, and the idea that we might deeply rely on robots is being accepted by an older demographic, faster than one might expect.
According to TechCrunch, older age groups (44-54 and 55+) have more heavily adopted voice assistants, the forerunner of truly conversational robots. The demographics of the “superuser,” a person who spends twice the average amount of time using an Amazon Alexa or Apple Siri-type assistant, is a 52-year-old woman.
Last fall, a UK documentary about the latest high-tech sex dolls, “The Sex Robots are Coming,” profiled a 58-year-old “happily married” man from Atlanta who enjoys intimate relationships with his four animatronic dolls and is saving up for a more intelligent model. The sensationalism of that sentence may obscure the reason I included it in this essay: the man’s age.
When, a full decade ago, I started envisioning a novel about a robot caretaker who prompts its elderly human owner to divulge century-old secrets, the technological aspects seemed highly futuristic. I originally set the story in 2049. But two things happened. One, I got busy with other books, slowing down my speculative novel’s publication by several years. Two, technology refused to sit still. Halfway through writing Plum Rains, I had to rejigger the Tokyo-set story, bringing it closer by twenty years. It’s now set just around the corner, in 2029.
Still, I had to wonder: what would Japanese elderly people really think about being cared for by a highly developed robot companion? Thanks to a friend who was teaching English to retirees in a town outside Tokyo, I got to ask.
The dozen or so Japanese men and women I talked to in 2014 agreed that they weren’t excited about having a robot step into the role of a dutiful son or daughter. That wasn’t a surprise. But the retirees’ overall attitude—blasé acceptance—was. No person was shocked by the talk of robotic nurses and companions, and no one thought it was a silly subject better suited for sci-fi movies, either. That makes sense in a country where simplified robotic therapy devices, like the harp seal-shaped PARO, have been around for over a decade.
Japan is ahead of the US in most robotic matters, but Americans see the writing on the wall, too. Last year, a PEW report found that 41% of Americans would be interested in a robot caregiver for themselves or their family member; a nearly equal percentage are worried about that development. Hope for it or fear it, the future of robotic healthcare is coming. In a separate PEW report one AI expert described the care of elderly by robots as “low hanging fruit.”
I shouldn’t have needed surveys and interviews to clue me in. I could have thought of my own mother, who recently died of cancer. She spent her final months using in-home hospice care. If she could have had a highly functioning robot to help her remember when to take her meds—or better yet, drive her to the casino without offering any human-voiced comments—she would have leaped at the opportunity.
Even more telling, my mother was one of the very first owners, over a decade earlier, of a Roomba vacuum cleaner. She wasn’t the first to own a cellphone, she had problems with her email, and she didn’t like to make online purchases because she feared identity theft. But when my mother really wanted something—a cleaner floor, no stooping required—she became a first-adopter of a culturally significant device that has gone on to sell 20 million units.
In the early 1990s, I was too busy re-watching Robocop and Terminator movies to notice the Roomba revolution. My mother, for her part, probably didn’t realize Roomba was developed by MIT roboticists and qualifies as an actual robot.
This, I now believe, will continue to be the pattern as the relationship-changing technologies enter our lives: prosaically, pragmatically, stealthily. Far from rejecting technology or being befuddled by it, older people may be the ones whose needs make the social robot revolution a reality. That’s interesting.
It may also be worrisome, unless key questions are asked. Which tasks should be outsourced to robots? Which roles should be reserved for humans? What other issues—safety, privacy, the threat of runaway AI—should be considered before it’s too late?
Whether lonely young men, imperiled astronauts, or 50- and 60-something women become the most typical superusers of cutting-edge technologies, let’s hope they remember to question the role of AI in a future we’ll all share.