China: building friendship between robots and the elderly

Quartz offers a look inside China's experiment to find friends for 230 million elders:

As a result of the one-child policy the population of China is greying and the country is now home to a quarter of the world's seniors. Few Chinese are able to care for their aging family members and so the number of retirement homes nationwide is increasing rapidly. But due to high labour cost very few of the retirement homes are able to make a profit. 

To solve this problem China is thinking way beyond furry or flesh and bone friends by putting its odds on robots as the future companions and caregivers for the elders at retirement homes. The government is focused on developing service robots, and has laid out a plan to turn it into a 30-billion-yuan industry (about £3.37 billion GBP) by 2020. 

Xiaoming Pan is one of the founders of Longshan Nursing Home and CEO of the company Youban Technologies that has developed the three robots the home it testing. One of the tree is a pink and white child-sized chatting, singing and dancing bot whose sole purpose is to keep residents company. Pan believes using robots can make high quality care affordable. He explains:

“Robots are designed to be your friends because with self-learning and data analysis, they can study what you like, memorize it, and use that to make interactions with you much smoother and enjoyable”.

That being said, building strong friendships between complete stangers can be costly and time-consuming. At Longshan Nursing Home the elders and robots are having conversation difficulties and not everyone is equally excited about their new campanions. The technology of the robots, such as voice recognition, still has a long way to go and the elder find them confusing to use so they are not being used very often. 

“A big challenge for us when we’re developing these robots is that there’s not much data on the behavior of the elderly. It’s easy to get data on young people because they’re online all the time. But to understand what the elderly really want, you need to talk to them face to face, one by one, and build a unique database from scratch. That costs a lot of money and time”, Pan explains. 

Similar experiments are underway in the U.K.JapanItaly, and many other countries and seemingly robots are the new pioneers of the social sector. Though the ethical question of whether artificial intelligence caregiving can ever be considered "high quality" remains. 

More here.

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