April 01, 2016      

Maybe it’s Alexa-time for all of us It may seem like a far-out thought as you read this, but many people will be making an in-home rendezvous with a robot companion much sooner than they think. Thousands already have. Research suggests that a robot companion could help us to stave off loneliness, sickness, even death. Yes, death! Saved by a robot. Who’d have thunk it? Such a home buddy might be Amazon’s popular $179.00 Alexa (Echo) or any one of the other dozen or so home/companion robots currently on the market (see: Sweet Sixteen for 2016). Research is showing that companionship-at any age or life situation-is essential for our general health and well-being. Living alone in quiet desperation or in ill-health at any age is a big problem that could increase chances of death by 26 percent. The shocking reality of it all Okay here’s the grim side of being old, lonely or sick, or worse, all three at once anywhere in the world. First off, Google shows over 66 million worldwide results for “loneliness”. It’s depressing just reading some of the result descriptions. Kerstin Emerson, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology, piles on with “Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.” And that “subjective feeling of loneliness increases risk of death by 26 percent.” A recent Brigham Young University study Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality concludes that 33 percent of us are chronically lonely, which makes Emerson’s conclusions all the more alarming.

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What then about being old and lonely? Researchers in Amsterdam found that study participants between the ages 65 to 86 who reported feeling lonely-regardless of the number of friends and family surrounding them-were more likely to experience dementia than those who lived alone. Those same lonely oldsters make twice as many trips to see their doctor even though only a relative few are in need of medical assistance. Most are quick, pick me up visits. Visits that burden the overburdened healthcare system all that much more. As for shut-ins and the disabled, more than “1 billion persons in the world have some form of disability… [of whom]… “between 110-190 million people have very significant difficulties in functioning.” Tony Gentry, an occupational therapist and director of the Assistive Technology for Cognition Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, told MarketWatch: “Robots don’t have to do much to provide a sense of companionship,” adding how easy it is to anthropomorphize robot vacuum cleaners. For octogenarian Willie Kate Friar, waking up in the middle of the night to check her clock for the time is now as simple as asking Alexa. No turning the lights on any more, no rolling over to look. “I’ve found Alexa is like a companion,” Friar says of her new voice-controlled, talking, female virtual assistant from Amazon. There’s that word “companion” quickly cropping up; something with which other home electronics, no matter how long in a particular home, will ever get to be called. If it’s an inanimate object that can converse, humans will look upon it as a buddy. Others are soon to follow Amazon got out in front of everyone with its robot companion and has virtually swept the marketplace by price, availability, and ease of use. And having released an SDK to the world, developers will undoubtedly now take to making plenty more apps for myriad more in-home uses, especially Cloud-based downloads to make every robot home companion a better buddy. Although Amazon is way out in front of the pack, there’s still plenty of room for anyone with a good home robot; emphasis on “good”. Statistica forecasts the market to grow to over $9 billion by 2025, with $2.6 billion of that ascending number slated for home cleaning robots by 2020. With a potential 1 billion customers worldwide, home companion robotics could well become a mega-business in short order. Better yet, consumers are ready and anticipating a rendezvous with a buddy bot of their own. An Ericsson survey showed: “Over 40 percent of surveyed Smartphone owners would like a domestic robot that could teach them how to use new technology, how to cook healthier meals, and give them advice on what to do.” In short, a companion.