Katie Englehart writes about the problem of loneliness that afflict a large number of older people in the US.
Older people are more likely to live alone in the United States than in most other places in the world. Nearly thirty per cent of Americans over sixty-five live by themselves, most of them women.
In 2017, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, declared loneliness an “epidemic” among Americans of all ages. This warning was partly inspired by new medical research that has revealed the damage that social isolation and loneliness can inflict on a body. The two conditions are often linked, but they are not the same: isolation is an objective state (not having much contact with the world); loneliness is a subjective one (feeling that the contact you have is not enough). Both are thought to prompt a heightened inflammatory response, which can increase a person’s risk for a vast range of pathologies, including dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke. Older people are more susceptible to loneliness; forty-three per cent of Americans over sixty identify as lonely. Their individual suffering is often described by medical researchers as especially perilous, and their collective suffering is seen as an especially awful societal failing.
She writes about a novel attempt to address this problem and that is to give older people living alone robot pets (cats or dogs) that have many of the qualities of real animals. You can see videos of what these ‘pets’ look like
The texture of the fur is supposed to be realistic so that one gets the same tactile sensation petting or stroking them as you would with a live animal. What surprised me is that these pets only cost around $100. That may be because they seem to be immobile. The next generation will likely involve them being able to move around the house using sensors to guide them, somewhat like a Roomba or a self driving car. That feature would likely jack up the price quite a bit.
They have found that people can develop feelings for their robot pets and this has troubled some ethicists.
That loneliness can tempt a person into deeper alliance with robots has troubled many ethicists. Some charge that it is inherently indecent for us to offer, as an alternative to human company, the ersatz love and attention of a robot. Won’t an elderly person feel infantilized, even debased, by the offering? And would we be so quick to prescribe a robot for a lonely child?
Engaging a robot as a companion involves a steady disregard of that unfeeling. In a paper called “The March of the Robot Dogs,” the philosopher Robert Sparrow made another ethical critique—this one of consenting elderly users. “For an individual to benefit significantly from ownership of a robot pet they must systematically delude themselves regarding the real nature of their relation with the animal,” he wrote. “It requires sentimentality of a morally deplorable sort.” Such sentimentality violates an ethical imperative: “To apprehend the world accurately.”
Some years ago, I reviewed the highly enjoyable film Robot and Frank (2012) that featured the relationship that develops between an old man (played by Frank Langella), who is a retired jewel thief, and a a humanoid robot that his son, who is worried about his father’s deteriorating mental condition, presents him with to help him with chores around the house, provide companionship, take care of his needs, and keep an eye on him.
Here’s the trailer for the film.
That film was set in the future but it looks like that future is closer than I thought.