Early in the new science-fiction film Robot & Frank Frank, an elderly man, gets a visit from his son, Hunter. Worried about his father's apparent decline, Hunter takes a gift out of the back of his car: a white robot with a humanlike body and a polite speaking voice.
The machine, Hunter promises, will keep his dad healthy and focused - and the house clean. Frank's not so sure: "That thing's going to kill me in my sleep," he worries. But before long the "healthcare" robot is cooking his meals, planting a garden and planning activities to keep his human overlord occupied.
The film's depiction of robot- human relations may still be a fantasy, but it's also a reminder we've been expecting elder-care robots like Frank's in the real world for several years now and, so far, they're nowhere to be seen. So what's the holdup?
Much of the Western World has ageing populations as baby boomers hit retirement age. It's unclear who will take care of all of these old people.
The solution, the robotics industry hopes, is technology. In Japan, where panic over an ageing population is nothing new, elder care robots have been a priority for more than a decade.
One of the Japanese researchers' bigger successes is Paro, a touch-sensitive companion robot - a sort of hi-tech stuffed animal, shaped like a seal - for elderly people with cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's.
In recent years, Japanese tech giant Panasonic has created a hair-washing robot, a drug delivery robot, a robotic bed and HOSPI-Rimo, a robot with a touch- screen that helps hospital patients communicate with doctors and family.
In the next decade, the selection of personal elder-care robots is expected to expand dramatically in the United States as well.
"Full robots with arms are still very expensive," says Ashutosh Saxena, a professor in the department of computer science at Cornell University, "but they are getting cheaper by the day."
He predicts that armless robots - capable of communicating verbally with the elderly and observing them in case of accidents - will hit the market within the next five years.
There's just one hiccup: the elderly themselves.
Robotic technology has proven to be alienating for many older people.
Alexander Libin, scientific director of simulation and education research at Medstar Health Research Institute, argues one of the biggest challenges is that the elderly need to be able to communicate easily with them.
Although many robots can now recognise voice commands, nonverbal cues pose a much bigger challenge.
Robots will also need to be specialised to cope with the elderly population's diverse needs.
"People with chronic illnesses like diabetes need a robot that can help them with shots, people with bad vision need guidance, people with cancer that are in pain will need a robot to entertain them by having a conversation or reading a book," Mr Libin says.
Thomas Rogers is a freelance writer based in New York and Berlin.
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