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In Isolating Times, Can Robo-Pets Provide Comfort?

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When Linda Spangler asked her mother, in a video chat, what she would like as gift for her 92nd birthday, the response came promptly.

“I’d like a dog,” Charlene Spangler said. “Is Wolfgang dead?” Wolfgang, a family dachshund, had indeed died long ago; so had all his successors. Ms. Spangler, who lives in a dementia care facility in Oakland, Calif., has trouble recalling such history.

Her daughter, a doctor, considered the request. Before visitors were barred from the residence because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Spangler had seen her mother every other day, often taking her to Lake Merritt in her wheelchair to see the ducks and to pat passing dogs.

In her facility, Charlene Spangler had eaten meals with several other residents, joined art classes and listened to visiting musicians.

Now activities and communal meals have vanished. Aside from one quick visit in the lobby, she has not seen her daughter in person in six months; they communicate through 15-minute video calls when staff members can arrange them.

“She’s more isolated in her room now,” Dr. Spangler said. “And she misses having a dog.”

Knowing that her mother couldn’t manage pet care, even if the residence had permitted animals, Dr. Spangler looked online for the robotic pets she had heard about.

She found a fluffy puppy with sensors that allow it to pant, woof, wag its tail, nap and awaken; a user can feel a simulated heartbeat. Unable to deliver the robot personally, she asked a staff member to take it inside. In a subsequent video chat, Dr. Spangler learned that her mother had named the robot dog Dumbo.

Such devices first appeared in American nursing homes and residences for seniors several years ago. A Japanese company began distributing an animatronic baby seal called PARO in 2009, and Hasbro started marketing robotic cats in 2015.

But the isolation caused by the coronavirus, not only in facilities but also among seniors living alone in their homes, has intensified interest in these products and increased sales, company executives said. It has also led to more public money being used to purchase them.

Long before the pandemic, loneliness and social disconnection were acknowledged public health problems for older people, linked to measurably poorer mental and physical health. Now, their risk for serious illness from the coronavirus has denied many seniors the stimulation and comfort of personal visits, cultural events, volunteering, even grocery shopping.

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Updated 2020-09-26T08:27:09.556Z

Isolation particularly threatens people with dementia, who are less able to embrace online diversions and communication.

“Covid has created a bizarre world where nobody can hug anybody,” said Laurie Orlov, a veteran industry analyst and founder of the newsletter Aging and Health Technology Watch. “The idea of a pet you can hold — a tactile experience — transcends that somewhat.”

In part because of its $6,120 price tag, PARO (the name echoes the Japanese term for “personal robot”) has primarily been adopted by institutions: hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities. Because the Food and Drug Administration classifies the robot as a biofeedback device, Medicare will cover its purchase and use by therapists.

Since the pandemic, “we’re seeing a lot of interest,” said Tom Turner, general manager of PARO Robots U.S., which sells about 50 robot seals annually but expects a big increase as insurance coverage broadens.

ImageA PARO robot in a nursing home in Amsterdam.
Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Researchers have reported benefits from interacting with PARO, although the studies were often small, short term or lacked control groups. At facilities in Texas and Kansas, for instance, investigators followed 61 residents with dementia who had 20-minute group sessions with a PARO three days a week for three months. Their stress and anxiety decreased, the researchers found, and they needed less medication for pain and problem behaviors.

Front Porch, a nonprofit senior living provider, acquired several PAROs in 2015 and tracked their effects through about 900 surveys reporting residents’ interactions. Over six months, the staff reported that the robots — which acquired names and, at holidays, festive outfits — helped calm residents, increased their social behavior and improved mood and appetite.

More recently, researchers have started analyzing the use of robotic pets outside institutional settings, by seniors living in their own homes. Of particular interest is the Joy for All brand sold by Ageless Innovation, a spinoff of Hasbro, and available from retailers like Walmart and Best Buy for about $120.

One of the largest studies, underwritten by United HealthCare and AARP, distributed free Joy for All robots to 271 seniors living independently.

All the seniors suffered from loneliness, according to a screening questionnaire. At 30 and 60 days, “there was improvement in their mental well-being, in sense of purpose and optimism,” said Dr. Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer of AARP’s business subsidiary and a study co-author. The study also found “a reduction in loneliness,” Dr. Yeh said, although the questionnaires showed that participants remained lonely.

Armed with such findings, Ageless Innovation has been offering discounted robots to state agencies working with seniors. (Both Joy for All and PARO robots can be sanitized to prevent viral transmission, the companies said.)

New York State ordered and distributed 1,100 pets after a pilot study found that participants reported less isolation and loneliness. “Families were sending me thank-you notes,” said Becky Preve, executive director of the Association on Aging in New York. Florida purchased 375.

Ageless Innovation said that a dozen states had placed orders totaling 6,000 devices. But that’s small potatoes compared to the sales potential if Medicare Advantage plans, offered through private insurers, agree to cover robotic pets.

One already does — HealthPartners, in the Midwest — and “we are in conversations with many other Medicare Advantage plans,” Ted Fischer, chief executive of Ageless Innovation, said in an email. The company is also eyeing certain Medicaid programs.

The idea of a robot, however fuzzy, as an antidote to loneliness produces both enthusiasm and revulsion. “These animals are helping people,” said Ms. Preve, a fan.

But Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied people and technology for 20 years, objected. “The promise is that it becomes a companion and you have a relationship with it,” she said of a robotic animal. “As though there’s mutuality. There’s not mutuality. It’s a bunch of bits and bytes.”

Sister Imelda Maurer, who, as a member of the Sisters of Divine Providence of San Antonio, has long been involved with elder care, dislikes the notion of deceiving people who have dementia and may think robots are actual pets. “There’s an element of ethical dishonesty about it,” she said.

Both she and Dr. Turkle pointed out that the enthusiasm for robots spotlighted the many failings in the way our society cares for older people, whether in understaffed facilities or isolated at home.

Moreover, how seniors will react is unpredictable. Emily J. White, a social work consultant in Sunnyvale, Calif., watched in amazement as her 96-year-old mother, who had dementia and depression and had largely stopped eating, warmed up to a Joy for All cat — and promptly asked for a piece of cake.

But Timothy Livengood, a planetary scientist in Columbia, Md., said his 80-year-old mother, who has dementia and lives in a facility, largely ignored a robotic cat. “She never really attached to it,” he said. “It didn’t have a personality.”

As for Charlene Spangler, during a recent video chat she mentioned that her dog was barking and that she could feel its heartbeat. “It seems like there’s some interaction,” her daughter said.

But a caregiver must repeatedly present the dog and remind her mother to pet or talk to it; otherwise, she forgets about it. How often that will happen, and whether it will assuage the pain of isolation, remains an unanswered question.

“I’m not sure how well this is going to work,” Dr. Spangler said. “But for $120, it was worth a try.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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