To address the burgeoning "loneliness epidemic" and the demands of an ageing population, some think that we should deploy robotic caregivers. A new ad titled "BEN (Biologically Engineered Nursing)", however, suggests that this is a dreadful idea. This five-minute ad was produced by the Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul (SSVP), an international Catholic voluntary organisation that provides assistance to those in need. When the short story opens, we see a woman, Claudine, dancing with her robotic caregiver, BEN. From there, we travel back to the previous day, and we come to see how the pair came to their gloomy embrace.
As the ad shows, all is not as it appears to be. BEN may be attending to his client's basic needs — such as preparing food and ensuring she gets up in the morning — but something vital is missing in these encounters. BEN, as an algorithm-driven automaton, is clearly failing to connect with Claudine. After all, robots are still robots at the end of the day.
"Today, companion robots are being introduced to assist lonely people," proclaims the SSVP at the end of the ad, who are clearly referring to initiatives like Japan's PARO therapeutic robot, a seal-like robot designed to "simulate interaction between patients and caregivers". But as this new ad shows, simulation is a poor substitute for the real thing. "We think that only human being[s] can help in fighting loneliness," says the SSVP. "We recruit volunteers."
It's been well established that social isolation is a serious health risk, particularly for the elderly. Studies have shown that spending too much time alone is just as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and that socially isolated individuals experience a 26 per cent increased risk of dying, regardless of the cause of death.
Sending human caregivers into the homes of the lonely is certainly one way to address this problem, but these interactions still need to be sincere in order to be effective. (It's worth pointing out that some human caregivers can be just as bad — or even worse — than the robot portrayed in this commercial.) At the same time, we cannot discount the potential effectiveness of caregiving robots, whether they be silly robotic seals, or something more futuristic. Psychological projection can be a very powerful thing.
Finally, physicians and healthcare professionals need to do their share by routinely evaluating their patients' social networks, and make recommendations about reaching out and connecting with more people. You don't want your loved ones to end up talking to the refrigerator just because that's their only option.