Robot cats could care for older Britons

Thu Aug 20, 2009 7:05am EDT
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By Farah Master

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Artificial cats and other man-made companions could be keeping Britain's elderly company within three years if society can be persuaded to start experimenting with robots.

A report by the Royal Academy of Engineering published on Thursday shows robot soldiers and surgery devices are rapidly being developed, but the legal and ethical debate is lagging.

"This is not constrained by the technological possibility of it so much as by the desire to do it -- and that is bound up with all sorts of social factors," said Professor Will Stewart of Southampton University, who contributed to the report.

As well as robotic pets, autonomous systems could be morphed into robot babysitters, artificial therapists and social or even sexual companions, the report said.

With Britain's elderly population set to grow around 50 percent by 2020, robotic companions could also help monitor the health of Britain's increasingly grey population.

"It is not a complete replacement for your kid calling you once a week. What you want is continuous attention and that is very difficult," said Stewart.

A robotic pet could help raise the alarm in the case of an accident, monitor fridge contents to make sure the elderly do not go hungry while voice prompts could remind them to switch off the heating.

The ethical challenges facing a robotic revolution include concerns that artificial pets or helpers could lead to social isolation for the elderly. The large amount of personal data recorded by any monitoring would also need to be regulated.   Continued...