An army of robots may soon be deployed to care for the elderly

Imagine you’re 85, and living alone. Your children are halfway across the country, and you’re widowed. You have a live-in aide – but it’s not human. Your personal robot reminds you to take your medicine, monitors your diet and exercise, plays games with you, and even helps you connect with family members on the Internet.

Some technology experts see this as the answer to a predicted shortage of caregivers to serve our rapidly aging population. Labs around the world are working on this, and already some robots are being marketed successfully. Robots have been designed to help people with physical rehabilitation, assist in a nursing home, and even provide “telepresence” – in which a robot acts as an avatar, a physical presence for someone you communicate with at long distance.

A conference in San Francisco last week on innovation and aging featured a keynote address by Cynthia Breazeal, founder and director of the Personal Robots Group at MIT’s Media Lab. Breazeal’s research focuses on robots that can make social and emotional connections with people. Her lab has developed a range of robots ranging from small six-legged devices to small stationary machines that mimic human expression and communication.

Breazeal’s lab has designed a robot called Nexi that can blink, shrug, and make facial expressions; another, called Autom, is designed to help people lose or maintain weight. And telepresence robots can gesture and pick up non-verbal cues.

No doubt, the demand for caregiving help will be there.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that demand for direct caregivers (including nursing aides, home health aides, and personal care aides) will far outstrip supply in the years ahead. The number of available jobs is expected to jump 48 percent, while the number of likely workers will rise just 1 percent.

Still, there’s something unsettling about the idea of machines caring for our elders. It may make sense to use technology to remind us to take our medicines. But emotional bonding? Learn more in my column today at Reuters Money; watch Breazeal discuss the future of social robots below in a recent TED talk.