A robot may be one of your best friends in retirement.
Commercially sold robots already do things like vacuum the floor and fetch things, but cutting-edge robotic research is now focused on building a commercially viable robot that will help people deal with one of the toughest conditions common in retirement -- loneliness.
"Robots are very good at engaging people -- getting them to feel better by helping them remain sufficiently social," says Maja Mataric, founding director of the University of Southern California's Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems.
It's just math -- and sensors attached to a person's arms and legs, says Mataric. "We write algorithms that allow a robot to sense what a person is doing and respond appropriately."
In some ways, robots trump even human contact in the form of cellphone conversations or computer interfaces, Mataric says. Because robots are endlessly patient and very dependable, they can be very effective coaches, nurses and buddies, sweetly and predictably cajoling even the crankiest patient into doing her morning stretch and swallowing her medicines on time. And the robot can laugh at the same old joke -- over and over again.
These "socially assistive" robots, as Mataric dubs them, are likely to be on the market in five years, she says. The technology is ready, but investors have been slow to grasp the potential, she thinks, in part because there have been no clinical tests. Without them, a doctor couldn't prescribe one. But because these robots can be profitable at about the same price as a laptop computer, Mataric thinks that even without extensive testing, they'll soon be a retirement planning staple for people who are very long-lived.
"The longer you live, the more lonely you'll be," Mataric says.
And a robot is a friend who you can't outlive.