Robotics and Ageing

The Economist has an interesting take on the future of automation and specifically robotics.

“At the moment, the robotics market is dominated by industrial machines, the sort used to assemble cars or electrical equipment. Sales of industrial-robotics systems were $48bn in 2017 … As demographic change speeds up, service robots will become more important … [T]hey will enable old people to live alone and stay mobile for longer. Robots will help assuage loneliness and mitigate the effects of dementia. They will make it easier to look after people in nursing homes and enable older workers who want to stay employed to keep up with the physical demands of labour. These robots will also be fundamentally different from industrial ones, which usually replace human activity —fitting a car windscreen, for example. By contrast, service robots extend it. For example, if an exoskeleton helps someone lift something heavy, the person still has to be there …

in January 2018. Japan’s government reckons that 8% of nursing homes now have lifting robots, and its national robot strategy (every country should have one) calls for four-fifths of the elderly receiving care to have some care provided by a robot by 2020.”

The change from industrial to service robots is advancing rapidly:

“A third of robot companies are less than six years old and make service robots. The costs of research and development are coming down and investment is rising. Within a decade, [Gill] Pratt [head of the Toyota Research Institute] reckons, domestic robots will help people cook at home and car-guidance systems will keep them mobile for longer.”

Demographics are driving this change:

“Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University show that, between 1993 and 2014, the countries that invested the most in robotics were those that were ageing the fastest—measured as a rise in the ratio of people over 56 compared with those aged 26-55 …

This year, there will be more people over 65 than under five for the first time in human history. By 2060, the number of Americans over 65 will double, to 98m, while in Japan, 40% of the population will be 65 or older. There will not be enough younger people to look after so many, unless robots help (and probably an influx of migrants is permitted, too) …”

I won’t be around to witness the full potential of this change (for good or ill), so I have to trust that my kids and their kids learn to control this development.


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