Moral AI in the News: AI Caregivers for the Elderly

People develop technology to perform tasks they cannot or do not enjoy. One such task is providing care to the infirm, as it is a physically and emotionally demanding, time-consuming, under-paid job. Many elderly people cannot take care of themselves adequately and need help, and even more are socially isolated. AI and robotics can help them with a variety of functions and with increasing degrees of personality. Some devices can retrieve household items for the user, others keep the user in contact with family members, others provide reminders about activities and appointments, and more. The aforementioned purposes are functionally useful, meaning that the people they help do not need to rely as heavily on caregivers for fairly basic assistance and can thereby remain independent more easily. However, these in-home mechanical assistants are becoming more and more capable of acting as companions in addition to just as tools. AI language and emotion recognition functions allow the makers of such devices to build conversational, sympathetic, responsive robots with which users can connect more deeply. This new companionate form of human-computer interaction helps satisfy some emotional needs of the users. It can potentially increase users’ tendencies to interact with real people too: ElliQ reminds users to video chat with loved ones and recommends activities likely to put the user in contact with other people, and PARO, a robotic baby seal, stimulates users to interact with other people by being a pleasant object over which to bond. Despite the benefits, some ethical concerns arise from the prospect of people relying on technology to meet their social needs: if caregivers stop trying to interact with their patients or loved ones because they believe the robot is enough, the elderly and/or dementia-afflicted people may ultimately have less social interaction than they do without AI assistants. Doctors and other experts advise that the AI caregivers should be used to assist human caregiving, not to replace it, so that overall those in need have more stimulation and interaction.

7/2/10 Paper on the possible effects of robotic assistants and companions for the elderly and disabled, describing the indirect as well as the direct potential benefits of replacing and adding to the caregiving resources available:

2012 Journal article about how people relate to robotic companions, suggesting that in general robots are perceived as tools or servants rather than as companions:

7/19/13 Article overviews various ways in which robots are being used for homecare of the elderly, as well as why they are needed:

11/19/14 Brief description of GreatCall (based in Durham), a system that sends wellbeing reports to elderly people’s families via an app:

1/29/15 Article on Care-O-Bot 4, a home assistant that can retrieve items, help around the household, and behave affably:

1/20/15 Article on Care-O-Bot 4 provides details about the robot’s components and functionality, from how it senses and moves to its ability to detect and respond to emotions:

11/11/15 Article on PARO, a robotic seal that helps reduce stress and promote social interaction in patients with dementia:

8/17/15 Article on PARO that describes the robot’s various senses and abilities to respond to interaction, compares the device to therapy animals, and discusses the ethical issues of using robotic companionship to replace vs in addition to human interaction for different groups of elderly people:

8/6/14 Article on the benefits of PARO with some details on how it is used and how it received by nursing home patients:

12/23/15 Description of Care Angel, an AI system that monitors elderly people’s wellbeing and keeps their family members updated to facilitate independent living for the elderly and remote caregiving for their families:

12/29/15 Article on Nadine, a “socially intelligent” robot that can interpret and express emotion through human-like features that is intended to be a companion to the elderly:

3/25/16 Article includes an interview with David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, a company developing intelligent, human-like robots to act as caregivers:

4/25/16 Investigative and opinion piece on the benefits and ethical risks of robotic caregivers, and their probable role as social companions:

5/30/16 Interview with a cognitive science professor about the emotional dangers of AI companions, such as the AI not understanding emotional nuance or loyalty at an appropriate level:

1/5/17 Report that the AARP has taken on using Care Angel in an initiative to help support caregivers:

1/11/17 Article and video on ElliQ, an in-home assistant like Alexa designed to act as an assistant to elderly people by suggesting activities and music, connecting with loved ones, and providing reminders about appointments and medications:

1/12/17 Article describes the ways in which ElliQ is a more complex and therefore effective companion device than other home AIs like Alexa because it must guide behavior rather than merely being a passive assistant while maintaining a friendly relationship with the user:

1/12/17 Article on ElliQ’s development, which was done with the help of 24 elderly people to help ensure that the device met appropriate needs and was not too strange to provide a pleasant experience:

1/12/17 Article on ElliQ that focuses on the integration of the technology into people’s lives, noting the robot’s “body language” and describing other efforts to develop companion AI:

Information page from Japanese company SoftBank on its emotion-interpreting AI robot Pepper, which is used to provide companionship and content appropriate to the user’s emotions for children and elderly people:

3/13/17 Article on the possible future of robotic companions, including and interview with Professor Maja Matarić of USC on the potential new values of having personal help from embodied AI:

4/10/17 Article on WellCare’s ventures in AI to help determine insurance plans best suite to individuals, and to help communicate with individuals to help them understand different plans and treatments:


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