In the 2004 movie "I, Robot," the robot-hating protagonist Del Spooner (played by Will Smith) is shocked to discover a robot in his grandmother's house, baking a pie. You may have similar mental images: When many people imagine robots in the home, they envision mechanized domestic workers doing tasks in human-like ways.
In reality, many of the robots that will provide support for older adults who "age in place" – staying at home when they might otherwise be forced to relocate to assisted living or nursing homes – won't look like people.
Instead, they will be specialized systems, akin to the Roomba, iRobot's robotic vacuum cleaner and the first commercially successful consumer robot. Small, specific devices are not only easier to design and deploy, they allow for incremental adoption as requirements evolve over time.
Seniors, like everyone else, need different things. Many need help with the mechanics of eating, bathing, dressing and standing up – tasks known as "activities of daily living." Along with daily help with cooking and managing their medications, they can benefit from a robotic hand with more intermittent things such as doing the laundry and getting to the doctor's office.
That may sound far-fetched, but in addition to vacuuming robots can already mop our floors and mow our lawns. Experimental robots help lift people into and out of chairs and beds, follow recipes, fold towels and dispense pills. Soon, autonomous (self-driving) cars will ferry people to appointments and gatherings.
The kinds of robots already available include models that drive, provide pet-like social companionship and greet customers. Some of these technologies are already in limited trials in nursing homes, and seniors of course can already rely on their own Roombas.
Meanwhile, robot companions may soon help relieve loneliness and nudge forgetful elders to eat on a regular schedule.
Scientists and other inventors are building robots that will do these jobs and many others.