HAL, is that you?

HAL, is that you?

Of course I’m not nearly old enough to remember this movie when it came out, but most of us have at least heard of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was released in 1968 for those of you feigning being too young to have ever heard of it. And in case you haven’t actually heard of it, the story is set in space and revolves around a rogue computer, the HAL 9000, which was designed to speak and interact at a human level. Pretty fancy stuff (for 1968), but you’ll have to rent the movie to find out what happens.


The point is that Arthur C. Clark, who authored the book, and Stanley Kubrick, who directed the film, were on to something. Modern times demand modern solutions, and these days a significant looming crisis is the size of our aging population.

Enter “Brian,” the latest generation of prototype robots being developed by some seriously smart people at the University of Toronto.

While there are a number of somewhat unsettling essentials that have gone into the development of robots like “Brian,” including, according to Dr. Goldie Nejat*, that they “had to reverse-engineer a person, mentally and physically,” the possibilities robots offer for the future of health care are nothing short of remarkable.

My mother has run a small health care-based family business for many years, and her key focus has been providing in-home care for the elderly. Seems simple enough, but do you think any government funding was ever readily available? Not so much. So she kept her rates affordable — assuming you have a little extra to pay for home care that isn’t subsidized — and as a result quite a number of elderly people over the years have been able to stay at home in a safe and familiar environment, lightening a little of the burden of our health-care system. Seems pretty smart doesn’t it. I’m telling you, it’s the wave of the future.

Now consider “Brian’s” future: not only could robots like him lighten the load of our already overwhelmed health-care system by providing an alternative means of care for seniors in the form of in-home care, “Brian” could also contribute, maybe significantly, to the improvement of the quality of life of these seniors.

Sound crazy? When I worked for my mother, much of my time was spent listening to her clients’ stories over a cup of tea (actually it was often a glass of sherry but don’t tell her), doing crossword puzzles, and playing along with Jeopardy to pass the time. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I heard!

Do I think the likes of “Brian” are going to replace the kind of care businesses like my mother’s provide? Not any time soon I’d say, but a robot does present an interesting adjunct if the prototypes become sophisticated enough to be deployed into a live environment and funding is provided to acquire them.

If you think about it, the first personal computer cost about $10,000 and took up the better part of a room. It is estimated that a robot like “Brian,” who can remind you to take your meds, turn off the stove, and get the laundry out of dryer, will cost about $20,000 and can be put in the closet so as not to scare the visitors. Fair deal don’t you think?

If you think $20,000 is a bit steep, take it one step further and consider this: a robot doesn’t need to be fed, is available 24-7 (subject to maintenance), isn’t unionized, won’t steal your silverware, won’t tell anyone your secrets or boss you around — unless he was programmed to boss you around.

I assume these robots will be able to look (more or less) like a human or a machine (though I gather people get a bit freaked out by the more “humanesque” prototypes) and maybe best of all from a taxpayer’s perspective, they’ll probably cost us a lot less, maintenance and additional in-home support (from humans) included, then it does to place an elderly person or couple) into any sort of facility where their care (think nursing, room, food, overhead, etc.) is paid for by the public purse.  

Robots like “Brian” are an incredible reminder of what we are technologically able to do nowadays, but the real question is: can they make dinner and clean the bathroom? Not yet maybe, but they might some day . . . dare to dream girls, dare to dream.

*This article was inspired by “Meet Brian, your robot care provider,” published in The Globe and Mail, Aug. 12, 2010.

Sarah Dale-Harris is corporate counsel at Accenture Inc. and can be reached at sarah.dale-harris@accenture.com or at 416-641-3151. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

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