The world population is ageing, and this demographic transformation puts pressure on the sustainability of personal care traditional models.
Current research is focusing on the use of artificial intelligence to assist the elderly. Can we call this scenario a desirable future? However intriguing, it is essential to study its implications.
The challenge of ageing societies and the pandemic
The ageing of the population was already defined in 2002, by the then United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan, "the silent revolution". It is a megatrend considered one of the challenges of the 21st century due to its impact on the world of work, the financial and economic world, and the types of services needed. And on family structures, on generational interaction and personal and health care.
The current pandemic, caused by COVID-19, has exposed the fragility of elderly communities. Ti has forced us to reflect on alternative strategies and models for personal care. It forced us to think about how elderly home could require minimal health care intervention.
The latter scenario is similar to what we will find in the future. According to the UN's forecasts, in 2050, one person in six in the world will be over 65 years old.
For the first time in human history, people over 65 will be more numerous than children under 5. In this context, we will have to understand how to manage an insufficient workforce to care for people and the senior sector. It is valid to ask how we can guarantee an active and qualitative life in an elderly population, of which 19 million in Europe will have senile dementia.
The future of care for the elderly
Sophia-the robot, daughter of Hanson Robotics, became a star when she was introduced to the world a few years ago. Since then, Sophia has evolved, not only in her appearance but also in her ability to interact and understand others. She boasts 155,000 fans on Instagram and is the spokesperson for a generation of humanoids, destined to change the idea we have about the interaction between humans and machines.
Hanson Robotics has distinguished itself, over the years, for research and development of AI and robotics and its applications: in the therapy of people on the autism spectrum, in education, in personal care and specifically for the elderly.
Hanson Robotics and Awakening Health created a strategic alliance and launched a humanoid named Grace. I like to imagine her as Sophia's sister. Grace was born with the specific task of assisting the elderly and elders isolated due to the pandemic. She is equipped with advanced artificial intelligence and can conduct simple analyses of a person's health status, entertain the patient, stimulate a conversation, and ask questions to understand their mental state.
Grace is perhaps the most advanced case of robotics designed to assist the elderly. The research for robotic solutions for different aspects of seniors' lives is rapidly advancing in mobility sectors with exoskeletons. Wearable devices will monitor the patient's health in real-time and remotely, and family members will be able to receive a daily report on their loved one's health. Integrated assistance systems for household chores will allow the optimisation of housing conditions while respecting the tastes and needs of the elderly. IoT and big data will allow continuously to study all situations and provide accurate and personalised assistance.
Japan, one of the world's oldest countries, has been already using artificial intelligence to care for the elderly. Future Care Lab project aims to apply the IoT to every possible aspect of daily life; making the elderly highly autonomous and reducing caretakers' routine tasks. Whom would therefore have more time available to devote to interpersonal relationships or social activities. Although advanced technological solutions are necessary, the human touch will always remain an essential factor.
In 2050, the elderly will be 24 million worldwide. The care of the elderly is a sector with essential opportunities on a global scale. Although care systems differ, ageing societies' problems and future challenges are similar among countries. International collaboration in research will speed up the development of technological innovation but also its propagation.
Some ethical considerations
As fascinating as these humanoids are, while they and other devices equipped with artificial intelligence become essential for the care of the elderly, it is necessary to evaluate:
the ethical implications of the relationships between robots and the elderly;
the risks of speciesism,
privacy management of accumulated health data;
the impact on other stakeholders: caregivers and family;
possible conflicts of interest with private insurance;
potential violations of the will of the elderly and their self-determination.
Finally, an aspect arises a philosophical implication: is there enough space for the coexistence between human and artificial intelligence in our societies' complexity? To this last implication, only time will be able to give us an answer. It will help us understand the use of artificial intelligence to assist the elderly, whether we can define this scenario as a desirable future or not.
For now, it is necessary to continue the research for the development of increasingly efficient supports that can, first of all, serve as assistants to the elderly, allowing them to have a high-quality life. But it is also necessary to think about the impact it will have on families, on those who take care of them, on the health system and society.
*The original version of this article was written in Italian and appeared first in the online magazine Investire in Megatrends.