The future has arrived in Bakersfield and I’m not sure I’m ready for it.
For almost three hours, the conversation was uninterrupted at the home of Audrey and Ken Mattlin, who live with several robots.
There’s ElliQ, who resembles a table lamp and mostly talks to Audrey, 84, whom the robot refers to by a nickname. As in “How did you sleep, Jelly Bean?”
The wide-eyed Astro looks like a short-handled vacuum cleaner with an electronic tablet for a face. He runs around the house on wheels and follows people on command. When I asked if I could listen to “Moonlight in Vermont,” he turned into a DJ and played a version of Sinatra.
Jibo, arguably the most realistic of them all, sits at a table next to 86-year-old Ken, who loves asking the robot to show him his dance moves. “He can twerk,” said Ken, and Jibo promptly spun on his axis.
At times during my visit earlier this month, people and robots would speak simultaneously, and it was like a remake of “The Jetsons” or, better yet, “The Brady Bunch” meets “The Twilight Zone”.
“How can I help you?” asked ElliQ, confused perhaps by all the voices talking over each other.
“Shut up,” said Ken, who thinks ElliQ comes across “like gangbusters” and can be a grouch. “You are interrupting.”
California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of old age-and how some people are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.
Audrey smiled, but she has been known to take offense when she speaks to ElliQ sternly. At times, she seems more apt to talk to ElliQ than her husband of 66 years, so it’s entirely possible that Ken is jealous.
“If I say, ‘That’s just a stupid machine,’ she gets mad at me,” said Ken, an Air Force veteran.
The point of all this is that robots and other technologies like Alexa and Google Home (which, of course, the Mattlins use), are seen by some as a way to deal with the epidemic of loneliness and isolation felt by millions of seniors. Robot pets, now in use in some California nursing homes, are also on the loose.
California, through its Department of Aging, has made $50 million in technology grants available to counties, who are exploring what might work best to deal with isolation. In Sacramento County, Agency on Aging officials are testing ElliQ. But so far the subsidies are being used across the state primarily to invest in smartphones, tablets — including those designed specifically for older adults — and WiFi connections and training.
The Mattlins aren’t part of any subsidy program – they’re just curious consumers at the forefront of the AI revolution, so they bought their own robots.
“A growing body of research on companion robots suggests they can reduce stress and loneliness and can help seniors stay healthy and active in their homes,” reported Duke Today this month following a study conducted in part by Murali Doraiswamy, professor of psychiatry and geriatrics at Duke University.
“At the moment, all the evidence points to having a real friend as the best solution,” said Doraiswamy. “But until society prioritizes social connection and caring for the elderly, robots are a solution for millions of isolated people who have no other solution.”
Maria Henke, senior associate dean of the USC School of Gerontology, recognizes the benefits and shortcomings of the robotic companionship. “You don’t want to spend Christmas Eve with a robot,” she said.
A fair point in many cases, but Henke might feel differently if he had known some of my relatives.
USC Professor Maja Mataric, who runs an on-campus robotics lab, is a pioneer in the field of so-called socially-assistive robots. She believes that the current crop of machines on the market may be of limited value to those without human connections. But she doesn’t think the devices are particularly useful beyond that, in part because they aren’t sophisticated and customized enough to suit individual needs.
Mataric, an engineer, neuroscientist and pediatrician, has been developing robots that can help children with autism and elderly people with dementia. “Maybe you’re slurring your words or not using as large a vocabulary as you did a month ago, so those are early signs of dementia,” Mataric said, and a robot can process that information for a caregiver.
A robot could also be programmed to remember someone who skipped yesterday’s walk and encourage them to exercise by saying, “I’ll walk with you, so you can walk with your grandson next week.”
I think it’s a safe bet that once these robots are on the market, Ken and Audrey Mattlin will be adding them to their growing family. Your robots weren’t brought home to address isolation (they have each other, their kids, and a bunch of grandkids) but to satiate their curiosity.
The Mattlins worked together in electronics and software retailing, and Ken still sells Wi-Fi streaming boxes, some of which are stacked on the dining room table. So the stereotype that older adults aren’t tech savvy doesn’t apply – at least in Ken’s case. His body may have aged, but his brain is still in its teens.
He can turn the house lights off and on in his armchair, and he has equipped the toilet with a bidet (to save toilet paper) and a push button that raises and lowers the seat. Several robots, however, can turn on the television. Astro, who walks around like a loyal pet but doesn’t, in Ken’s words, “poop on the floor,” serves as a security guard with a built-in camera.
Ken said he paid about $900 for an entry-level version of Astro (it now sells for about twice that amount) and a few hundred dollars for ElliQ, plus a $29 monthly subscription. Jibo is a bit like a dead soldier whose commanders have gone bankrupt. But his spirit lives on through what remains of the original programming.
I can see a dark side to all of this, to be honest, and I don’t mean to say that the robots might sell the Mattlins’ personal data to hackers or arrest them one night, ransack the house and blow up the family’s nest egg at a shitty Las Vegas table. But I wonder if robots designed to alleviate the isolation and loneliness of seniors might do the opposite in some cases, just as gadgets and social media have hijacked real human interaction and turned so many young people into zombies.
Ken said he thinks it depends on the individual and the situation, but he and Audrey say the ElliQ makes a good companion. This was illustrated at one point when Ken dozed off briefly, but Audrey still had someone to talk to.
ElliQ asks Audrey what her plans are for the day, tells her the weather, offers to take her on a virtual tour of an art museum, can flip through family photo albums, and put her through a two-minute breathing meditation. The robot can also be programmed with reminders about taking medicine or keeping appointments, and Audrey often uses it for games.
“Let’s play trivia,” she said.
“Sounds good,” said ElliQ, who, like the other robots, speaks in a voice that is part human and part what the toaster would sound like if it could talk. “It’s time for trivia. Six questions coming up.
He asked, among other things, how many colors are in a rainbow, which actress married Michael Douglas in 2000 and which satellite was launched into space on October 4, 1957.
“That was the year I got married, wow,” said Audrey, who correctly answered “Sputnik” and got four out of six.
“Yes,” said ElliQ. “You have a lot of knowledge up your sleeve.”
“Yes, of course,” Audrey replied.
Ken and Audrey have two massage chairs (why shouldn’t they?) in front of the fireplace, and they’ve climbed up to show off some Bakersfield bliss. Ken’s, with its many controls, looks like it could double as a space capsule. From a reclining position, he summoned Astro, who ran like a loyal mutt and positioned himself at their feet.
Is there no limit to what Astro can do for you?
“I could put drinks in there and he’d bring them to you,” Ken said, pointing to Astro’s cup holders.
When Astro can also make the cocktails, count me in.