Robot Companionship For Lonely Seniors Is The Saddest Thing I Ever Heard

(Photo by WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)

Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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“For older people who are lonely, is the solution a robot friend?” asks the saddest New York Times headline ever written — over the holiday weekend no less.

I guess that’s what I get for reading The Times. This is the last thing I wanted to read about as I prepared for a weekend of barbecues and day drinking. But my day on the water was irreparably destroyed by images of a sweet old granny dying alone with only NurseBot 9500-Sport to keep her company.

This future, however, is apparently right on the horizon. For two years already, New York officials have been pushing a robotic companion for seniors in the state. The robot, named “ElliQ,” is free for seniors, and comes with an AI-generated voice technology that’s capable of discussing “complicated subjects.” The Times mentions concerns about sketchy data collection, but really that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The answer to The Times’ question should be a resounding no. It’s one thing to have a robot cover basic health needs — dispensing pills, setting doctors appointments, etc. — but it can never be a substitute for a loving grandchild or tight-knit friendship.

A robot might be a novel companion for a short time, the same way a new video game is for a teenager. But in the long run, it will only make the problem of senior loneliness worse.

Seniors are lonely because intergenerational support has never been thinner. Kids and grandkids are encouraged to leave the nest to work 60 hours a week in a faraway city. Nursing homes for senior care become the default, rather than the last resort, as we all go about our highly individualized lives. This is a radical departure from nearly every other culture at every other time in history: families are meant to stay tight and localized.

With the introduction of robotic care, younger generations will feel even less of an obligation to their parents and grandparents: “Mom’s alright in the home this Christmas, she’s got ElliQ. I’ll see her next Thanksgiving.” It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for a generation already too absorbed in its own self-interest.

What we need to do is make it easier for seniors to stay in their homes, surrounded by friends and family, and not just pawn the problem off on robots.