Robotic carers: what can they do and what should they be allowed to do?

Technology advancements and the severe shortage of caregivers are about to turn homes for assisted living into futuristic places where robots are trusted with various aspects of patient care. Although the concept of robotic carers is still in its early days, more countries around the world are seeing it as a reliable tool for tackling the demographic crisis.

What could robotic carers do and what should they be allowed to do to improve the lives of the elderly? As the demand for qualified caregivers already exceeds supply in many countries with aging population, robots are initially faced with a series of gap-filling duties such as helping patients with chores, providing medication reminders and serving as companions to bring down the levels of loneliness and social exclusion.  While some – such as the University of Maryland’s Cynthia Matuszek – believe machines should only be allowed to assist human carers without fully replacing them, others – particularly in Japan – are convinced that in time robot carers will evolve into fully fledged helpers for the elderly and disabled. Some of the latest carebots do not look like humans but rather come in task-specific shapes and sizes. Some robotic carers are even being made to look like pet creatures to satisfy the need for companionship.

The Japanese model

Robotic carers have already been deployed on an experimental basis in various care institutions for elderly, disabled or terminally ill patients. Although the integration levels have often been described as encouraging, many believe it will take time for people to get completely used to the idea of being cared for by machines. One country where robot-friendly attitude already flourishes is Japan, one of the reasons for this is the Japanese people’s belief that inanimate objects are imbued with a soul. There is another, more practical reason too. According to a government report, the country will face a shortage of 380 000 caregivers by 2025 and will make up for it by producing carebots. The local market is expected to increase 25 times to USD3.7 billion by 2035. In 2013, the government started subsidising the early adopters of robotic-care trend (more than 600 care homes, according to a Channel News Asia report).

Japan hopes that over time robots will transform from simple task performers to sophisticated medical assistants who can predict health deterioration and help avoid it.  So far, some of the most popular robotic helpers labelled “Made in Japan” include Robear, a bear-like device that can lift patients and carry them from one place to another and then sit  them down gently in a wheelchair; Pepper, a human-like robot designed to recognise emotions and serve as a personal companion;  Paro, that’s been made to look a like a baby seal to help the elderly fight loneliness; and  Palro, a 40 cm tall humanoid device created to stimulate fitness and brain function.

What makes a successful carebot?

No human carer could be available 24/7; robots on the other hand are not confined to shifts and rotas. According to Cynthia Matuszek, writing on the Conversation website, machine caregivers need to be developed to be intuitively user-friendly in order to be successful.  She noted that elderly people are not averse to technology and are as quick to embrace its advantages as everyone else. Relying on a robotic carer has a significant psychological benefit, as it can boost the elderly’s independence and self-confidence. Once robots take over the mundane chores, patients will gain more time for quality interaction with their human assistants.  The idea is to split the role of a caregiver between humans, who can provide empathy, emotional response and decision-making abilities and the machines whose main contribution is their efficiency and reliability.

At present, robotic caregivers are generally trusted with supporting activities. One of the most well-known robotic daily life assistant is the German Care-O-bot 4. It can perform variety of household activities, such as delivering food and drinks and helping with cooking or cleaning. The robot has already been deployed in care homes on experimental basis. The Asian Dinsow is small enough to fit on a bedside table and is used as a medication time reminder. It can also answer calls from doctors and relatives for physically impaired patients. Another mechanical carer – Stevie, who is made in the UK – is claimed by its creators to be able to keep elderly people connected to the world. Stevie has a big display that patients can use to make a phone call, an activity they may find challenging using small-screen mobile phones.

However, the privilege of having a robotic carer comes at a price. Currently, one of the most expensive devices is the Robear, whose price tag varies between USD168,000 and UDS252,000 according to different sources. The pleasure of having Pepper as a social companion is GBP17,160. Cuddly seal Paro costs nearly GBP5000, while Dinslow is USD2500. Stevie is in its experimental phase; its commercial debut is expected in 2019.

Ethical issues to be solved

76 years ago, the science fiction author Isaak Asimov devised the three laws of robotics in his collection of short stories I, Robot. They are as follows. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. Warwick University professor Tom Sorell said in 2017 that although the moral value of these laws is still valid, the autonomy of elderly people must be respected by humans and robots alike. In other words, they should be allowed independence even if that put them in the harm’s way. Asimov’s laws are fictional and in no way imperative, and in reality scientists and law-makers have a lot to think about while defining the rules for human–robot interaction in the future. Among the ethical issues that must be solved is the way humans and machines converse with each other. Some have argued that robot carers should never be made look too human in terms of appearance and speech as it may cause distress in patients, while others believe machines will naturally evolve into human-like companions capable of simulating eye contact, reading and conveying emotions and conversing like people do.

As robotic assistants slowly but surely make their way into care homes around the world, both the benefits and the negatives of their intervention into the lives of the elderly begin to surface. While thwarting the progress of science and the significant advantages it brings to everyone seem unthinkable, scientists and law-makers need to make sure robocarers are there to add quality to people’s daily routine without causing dehumanisation.


[Image licensed to Ingram Image.]

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