In a world with an increasing elderly population and labor shortages, companion robots offer a glimpse into what the future might hold for busy couples all around the world who struggle with providing care for their parents and children.
Companion robots such as Xiaoyuzaijia help bring medicine and water for elderly people who are ill at home, not to mention open doors for guests, tell stories, sing songs, and even play chess, according to China Daily.
If this sounds spooky or unnatural, consider that the number of elderly people aged 60 or older in China exceeded 222 million in the year 2015, accounting for 16.2 percent of the total population, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Further, this number is expected to reach 243 million in the year 2020, thus requiring more creative solutions for the challenge of taking care of this many elderly people.
Robots such as Xiaoyuzaijia are equipped with a camera and other hardware that allows voice and facial recognition, according to Song Chenfeng, founder and CEO of Zaijia, the manufacturer of the companion robot. Further, according to Mr. Song, family members will be able to connect with Xiaoyuzaijia by using a smartphone, thus allowing them to be notified when elderly parents fall or children cry.
However, Zaijia is not the only company producing companion robots. Enter Avatarmind Robot Technology, which has launched a companion robot called iPal, meant for children three to eight years of age. The robot is said to be able to dance, tell stories, play games, and enable kids to chat with friends by sharing videos and connecting to social media. Parents will be able to control the device and monitor their child’s activity through their smartphones.
While there is a clear need for such products due to the aforementioned challenges of a rising elderly population in many countries and the fact that parents these days are busier than ever, many questions remain. Firstly, despite assurances from executives such as Mr. Song that such robots can satisfy the emotional needs of their customer base, it remains to be seen whether companion robots will be capable of the empathy required to make a deep personal connection with human beings. More specifically, can a robot provide the emotional support or stimulating conversation that en elderly person may need? Also, can a companion robot comfort a child who has been bullied or needs encouragement after not performing well on a test in school?
Additionally, what happens if the companion robot breaks down, the software powering it experiences a bug, or the robot is stolen, thus posing a potential security risk? Further, are we destined to lose part of our humanity as a result of interacting with robots from a very young age? While such questions may appear far-fetched, these are complex issues we will have to consider before making companion robots a commonplace item in our daily lives.