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The Companion
Inside China’s experiment to find friends for 230 million old people
Illustrations by philiplueck
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Illustrations by philiplueck

Qing Zhang was born in central China in 1929 in a village that didn’t have a single light bulb. Now, at the age of 88, she lives in a nursing home that’s using robots to help care for her.

The privately-owned Long Shan Nursing Home is one of a few dozen early testing sites for caregiving robots in China. The home has been experimenting with three robots since August 2016.

Doctors and nurses use two smaller robots, a bit like person-shaped rolling smartphones. They can track blood pressure and other basic health data, but also help residents video chat with their family or look at photos. The third robot is something completely different: a pink and white child-sized bot whose sole purpose is to keep residents company.

dance with robot
The nursing home believes this singing, dancing, chatting machine is a model for a new kind of caregiving robot, one that focuses on companionship.

Care bots are part of a big bet China’s making on robots. The country is already the world’s largest producer of industrial robots and the largest buyer of robots in the world. China’s factories spent more than $3 billion on industrial robots in 2015, according to the International Federation of Robotics and Bernstein Research.

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The government is also focused on developing service robots, and has laid out a plan to turn it into a 30-billion-yuan industry (about $4.35 billion USD) by 2020. A big part of that will be caregiving and companion robots for the elderly.

China needs robots to care for its large, and growing, elderly population—it’s home to a quarter of the world’s seniors—because it can hardly rely on the one-child generation. As fewer Chinese are able to care for their aging parents, the number of retirement homes nationwide is mushrooming. And yet fewer than 20% of retirement homes in China are making a profit, according to a 2015 government report (link in Chinese). High labor costs are a big reason why.

“Just take our nursing home for an example. We have about 400 residents and more than 200 staff,” explained Xiaoming Pan. He is one of the founders of Longshan Nursing Home, and the owner of the company that developed the three robots the home is testing. He says using robots could make high quality care affordable.

Xiaoming Pan, CEO of Youban Technologies, the company that programmed the three robots that are being tested in Longshan Nursing Home. Xiaoming Pan is also a co-founder of the nursing home.
Xiaoming Pan, CEO of Youban Technologies. (Quartz/Siyi Chen)

“Robots are designed to be your friends because with self-learning and data analysis, they can study what you like, memorize it, and use that to make interactions with you much smoother and enjoyable” Pan said.

But the conversations between the current robots and residents suggest friendship is still pretty far away. So far, the robots have lots of glitches. One problem is that Long Shan doesn’t have good internet connectivity. Yet the robots need to get online. And even when the robots are fully functional, unexpected questions often go beyond the robots’ database, confusing residents and leading to lots of awkward silences.

That said, the more actual conversations the robot has, the better the AI will become.

“A big challenge for us when we’re developing these robots is that there’s not much data on the behavior of the elderly,” Pan said. “It’s easy to get data on young people because they’re online all the time. But to understand what the elderly really want, you need to talk to them face to face, one by one, and build a unique database from scratch. That costs a lot of money and time.”

Quartz/Siyi Chen

Pan’s company, Youban Technologies, programs the robots but doesn’t make them. He buys hardware from other robot manufacturers and his company develops the software that the robots use. That too has caused some problems.

A robot originally for the kids
A robot dancing with residents in Longshan Nursing Home. (Quartz/Siyi Chen)

The companion robot they’re testing was actually built for kids and it still sings songs from kids movies, like Zootopia and Frozen. These are not songs that are familiar, or even intelligible, to the elderly Chinese residents here. But Pan says his company is working to customize the robots for a nursing home setting.

Like many robotics companies in China, Pan’s company is aiming to get help from the government. He says he’s applying for different subsidies from national and local government agencies, worth up to two million yuan (about $300,000 USD). He expects the money to cover up to 50% of the company’s first round of funding.

China is not the only country that wants robots to befriend and care for the elderly. Similar experiments are underway in the U.K., Japan, Italy, and many other countries.

And the response has been similarly mixed. In 2016, a French religious organization launched a campaign against companionship robots with this beautiful yet sad video about the life of a lonely old woman and her caregiving robot.

Another nursing home in China has taken a pragmatic approach to encourage more human companionship—it rewards people who visit their elderly relatives with vouchers that can be used to pay the nursing home.

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