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Human Touch Matters — But Will A Robot Suffice?

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Today, we think of caregiving in the context of home care, usually for seniors with health issues. But caregiving — providing sustenance, love and companionship — occurs at every life stage, from infancy to old age. When it’s denied, babies suffer, as psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated with his famous rhesus monkey experiments in the 1950.

As you may remember from school, Harlow sought to test the claim, in vogue at that time, that too much physical contact with human infants impeded their development. He raised rhesus monkeys away from their natural mothers, then created surrogate mothers of wire and wood. Some of the surrogates were covered with cloth; others were not.

He discovered, much to his surprise, that even when the wire mothers held the nourishment (a bottle with food) and the cloth mother held nothing, the baby monkeys overwhelming preferred the cloth mothers. They would go to the wire mothers just long enough to feed, they return to cling to the cuddlier cloth surrogates.

senior-robot-kissSurrogate, or The Real Thing?

Clearly, touch is essential to development and well being throughout our lives. But just as the monkeys fared fairly well with substitute mothers that provided the soft touch they craved, it raises the question for people: does the touch we need, need to come from a human?

As we’ve explored before, animatronic pets that behave like real cats and dogs can be tremendously healing for seniors with cognitive impairment, dispensing love while dispensing with leash or litter box (a definite plus for a senior with dementia who nevertheless misses their old dog or cat companion, yet would be unable to care for one now.)

But can actual robots, which so far aren’t particularly cuddly in design, substitute for human touch? As the AI field explodes, robots are growing exponentially smarter, and while they may not offer the warmth of skin contact, they can tickle an elder’s funny bone with their behavior — and laughter is another balm for the soul. Norman Cousins, longtime editor of the Saturday Review and author of Anatomy of An Illness, credits laughter (along with megadoses of Vitamin C) with helping to cure his chronic connective tissue disease.

Designed to Replicate Nature

Some companies are aiming to replicate nature in their robotic design, such as Consequential Robotics, which has created MiRo: a dog-rabbit like companion that “has its own distinct personality. MiRo is a hybrid of lots of different animals,” maintains Sebastian Conran, MiRo’s design director. “The normal artificial intelligence route is much more mechanical and produces a much more stilted type of action and behavior.”

A companion robot can be like a responsive pet, and also help monitor behavior and wellness, and provide schedule reminders, interaction, and yes, humor.

So if these humanoid companions can help fill the growing need for caregivers, adapting and learning as they interact with elderly clients, we might want to drape them in soft cotton or wool to simulate live animals — or human beings.

A robot may be able to help your reverse mortgage clients stay in their home longer because they have a companion surrogate who attends to their physical, emotional, and potentially even mental health needs — and that would be the most “touching” benefit of all.

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