The robots that could be caring for your parents

Robots are being trialled in hospitals and homes, but will they transform the care sector?

Imagine your elderly grandmother is in a nursing home and has fallen out of her chair. As she lies on the floor, she pulls the alarm cord and, after a few seconds, help arrives. But it’s not a care worker standing there – it’s a robot.

The machine assesses the scene, then moves closer to gently lift her up and place her back into the chair. It then scans her face using facial-recognition software and sees that she’s a little upset and shaken, so it displays a smiley face on its screen to try and put her at ease. Seeing that she’s otherwise uninjured, it then leaves to attend to other duties such as cleaning and transporting laundry.

This may sound like something from a dubious straight-to-DVD sci-fi film, but advances in robotics and the needs of a sector coming under increasing financial pressures mean such a scenario could be just around the corner, with a host of countries now trialling this type of tech.

One example is Robobear, an experimental Japanese nursing-care robot that can lift patients from their beds into wheelchairs and help them stand up. Elsewhere, there are robots that can recognise faces and interpret specific expressions, such as the Care-O-bot 3 Developed by British and European scientists – it can also play music, perform fetch and carry tasks, as well as call for help if a resident has a fall.

There are even robots that can lead their own exercise classes. Singapore’s RoboCoach androids (pictured above) can encourage the elderly to do simple exercises, mimic human movements, respond to voice commands, and vary the pace of activities if people are falling behind during the session.robot_care_robobear

(Above: Robotbear. Credit: RIKEN)

And it’s not just the physical aspects machines can attend to. Paro is a cute robotic seal that’s been designed to provides therapy for dementia patients using a combination of light, touch, sound, and temperature. Developed by Japanese firm AIST, a study by Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing found it had a calming effect on 60% of patients and boosted social behaviour by 97%.

Experts say the need to innovate in the care sector is becoming more and more acute. Nadra Ahmed, chair of the National Care Association, recently claimed the adult social care situation in the UK was “at the edge of the cliff”. And according to Deloitte’s “2017 Global Health Care Sector Outlook” report, this year will see rising costs and chronic illnesses create a pressing need to turn to technological solutions in order to “get more for less”.

Relieving the pressure on care staff

How are these “technological solutions” being received by the people actually working in the area? According to Dr Birgit Graf, head of the Care-O-bot project team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart, early feedback from staff and residents about the integration of robots in care homes has proven positive.

“We’ve been working closely with care homes, hospitals, and the different groups that might be concerned by new technologies like service robots in the care sector.

“From this work, we know that care personnel would appreciate support by service robots for logistical and informational tasks, such as transport of laundry or care utensils, or the automated documentation of used material. Also, reducing the physical workload, especially in relation to lifting of persons, would be helpful.”

Despite what she characterised as encouraging early feedback, Dr Graf emphasised that the machine is seen as something that could support care staff, rather than replace them: “We don’t see any robotics technology that is appropriate to replace human staff completely.

“Service robots can help to relieve the pressure on care staff with regard to both time and physical effort, thereby contributing to improved working conditions.”care-o-bot_

(Above: CareO-Bot 3. Credit: Fraunhofer IPA, Jens Kilian)

Jill Manthorpe, professor of social work and director of the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College London, also feels care staff would be open to assistance under the right circumstances.

“Robots may have roles in several ways”

“The care sector is wide and diverse, so robots may have roles in several ways,” she said. “We tend to think of them as potentially being in the frontline of care, but there are probably many functions that they can do to give staff more time.

“People working in the care sector are just like everyone else – they take on what is useful, relevant and affordable.

“Humans often want to be cared for by humans, but some prefer to be independent for as long as possible. It’s important not to over-generalise about the sector or about people with care and support needs.”

Electronic persons

Robotics tech is advancing at breakneck speed. Earlier this month the European Commission backed the drafting of regulations to govern the use and construction of robots and AI that it said were part of a “new industrial revolution” that would touch every aspect of society. The proposed new laws would brand them “electronic persons” and could hold them accountable for their actions or inactions.

But such advances also beg the question of whether or not there’s more to caring for someone than the physical practicalities. From the tin woodsman who longed for a heart to Pinocchio the wooden puppet that dreamed of being a boy, fiction has been filled with tales of artificial life forms that lacked a soul.

To continue the original analogy, imagine that after the robot has put your grandmother back in her chair, she was upset and needed to be comforted. What if she just wanted a chat, or to be reassured and receive genuine compassion? That – for the moment –  is something a machine can never do.

Noel Sharkey is emeritus professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, although is perhaps most well known for his TV appearances on Robot Wars and Techno Games.

“The robot won’t love them back”

He said: “I’m not so keen on the idea of a long-term companion robot to replace human contact. They are by nature a deception that relies on people for a friendship that is strictly one way. The robot won’t love them back.”

And even though robots can’t build an emotional bridge with humans they’re caring for, could they harness advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence to at least “mimic” something akin to a real human emotion, such as compassion and tenderness?

Featuring lifelike skin and brown hair, Nadine is a social robot that smiles, makes eye contact and shakes hands. It can also recognise people it has met before and even remember previous conversations. Designed by boffins at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and harnessing software similar to Apple’s Siri, one of its functions could be to provide companionship for the elderly.nadine

(Above: Nadine. Credit: Nadia Thallman)

Professor Sharkey added: “The technology for AI systems to mimic emotional compassion is almost there now. However, it’s an enormous challenge to make this contextually appropriate.

“There’s a considerable difference between a child crying because she dropped her lollipop and [because] her parents have just split up. I have no idea when or if that can be solved for a wide variety of contexts.”

Can robots ever truly care for humans?

Further down the line, then, if mimicking emotions isn’t enough, could robots be taught to develop some kind of genuine feelings towards those in their charge?

“I have no idea how that could be done,” said Sharkey.

“We don’t fully understand feelings in the human and how they’re induced. It may need a very different kind of machine – a chemical or organic machine. I don’t see this coming any time soon. Until then emotion in AI and robotics is an illusion at best and a deception at worst.”

Mark Coeckelbergh is professor of philosophy of media and technology at the University of Vienna and an expert on the ethics of robotics. He says robotics have the capability to transform health and social care, but that ethical questions have to be addressed.

“There’s fascination but also fear”

“As usual when it comes to machines, there’s fascination but also fear,” he said. “Will these robots lead to a dehumanisation of health care? Will a care robot replace human contact?

“It’s important to take seriously these fears, since they point to valid concerns and values. If we’re going to have robots in healthcare and in personal contexts at all, we better make sure that ethical and social issues are dealt with.”

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