The ethics of using companion robots for older adults’ wellbeing

Simon Coghlan1

1Deakin University, School of Medicine, Geelong, ,

Companion robots are touted as a means of improving the health and wellbeing of older Australians. Increasingly, older adults live alone or in aged care. Many people wish to ‘age in place’ – in their homes and communities. Yet shrinking social networks leave many older adults lonely, isolated, and at risk of poorer health.

Can robots help? ‘Assistive’ robots enable older people to (e.g.) connect remotely with relatives, remember dates, find things, etc. In contrast, ‘companion’ robots are designed to (partially) substitute for animal or human company. Examples include PARO the baby seal and AIBO the dog. Companion robots ostensibly elicit responses like affection, delight, tactile pleasure, care, warmth, and attachment. Thus, they supposedly enrich older adults’ lives.

This presentation critically explores a range of arguments for and against companion robots for older people. Some studies (e.g. Moyle) apparently show that companion robots improve engagement and interaction for older adults, not least those with dementia. Companion robots may thus have health benefits for the aged. Some also argue that robots might provide relief to overworked human caregivers. Critics (e.g. Sparrow) respond that companion robots tend to deceive and/or demean older people and may also lead to reduced interaction with real people and animals.

In addition to critically engaging with these arguments, this presentation goes further by exploring the concept of ‘enrichment’. In what way, if any, could emerging companion robots enrich an older and socially isolated person’s life? Could robots enhance capabilities (to use Martha Nussbaum’s word), such as affiliation, play, and emotional engagement? Can companion robots provide ‘company’ at all? Finally, should we be wary of a ‘utopia/dystopia fallacy’ – the tendency to think that companion robots must be either flatly good or flatly bad for us? In these ways, this presentation will push beyond current debates about the ethics of companion robots for older adults.


Simon Coghlan (PhD, BVSc) is a lecturer in Health Ethics and Professionalism at Deakin University, School of Medicine, Geelong. Previously he lectured in ethics, bioethics, and philosophy at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. He has also worked as a veterinarian in private practice for many years. His current research interests include One Health, veterinary ethics, and the concept of dignity. He is collaborating with researchers from the University of Melbourne on a project, funded by the Networked Society Institute, on the ethics of using social robots with older people.