If you're looking for a safe career, then working in a nursing home would seem like a good choice. There's a tremendous need for nursing staff at the moment. By 2020, "direct care" could be the single largest job category in the U.S., according to some projections.
But maybe not for long. Robots and semi-autonomous machines could hollow out some of that growth, because the technology is getting more sophisticated all the time, and the benefits are overwhelming. Take Luvozo's SAM robot—an autonomous-human hybrid. It costs about a quarter of what a human nurse does, and it already carries out several of the same tasks.
SAM is designed to move around care facilities and check in with residents to see they are okay. It's able to sense for "fall hazards" like clutter, spills on the floor, or poor lighting. And it offers a telepresence link to a trained offsite care-worker. When SAM enters residents' rooms, he makes smalltalk about baseball or football (or some-such), then asks if there's anything the person needs.
"Depending on the care plan for each resident, they can set a schedule for when to have SAM come by. They can answer every hour for some residents or every two hours," says Luvozo's CEO and cofounder David Pietrocola.
SAM doesn't do medical care. The offsite workers are former nursing assistants or nurses who want to remain in the profession, but they don't advise on heart conditions or hip replacements. For the moment, SAM is meant as an extra pair of eyes and ears, not a replacement for a real nurse.
"It's going to be really tough to find people to serve this industry, so we think we have an option where industry can hold on to the best caregivers, while supplementing coverage that's needed in these communities," Pietrocola says. SAM can do more check-ins than a regular nurse, offers more "socialization time," and he never gets sick or needs to go to lunch, he points out.
Luvozo ran a small pilot with one machine at a skilled nursing facility in Washington, D.C. this summer. Pietrocola claims residents had a "great experience" with the machine and were soon treating SAM like a real person, asking if he was having a good day, and so on. Luvozo plans to have SAM on the market next year, along with a new feature allowing family members to leave video messages using the machine.
At their best, robot concierges like SAM (here's another example) could help dampen the exploding cost of elder care and allow older people to live independently for longer. But we should also consider the implications of farming out old people to machinery. If it was my mother, I would wonder why the home wasn't sending in a real person to do the same job.