Can We Teach Robots to Care?

Challenges faced by care services could be alleviated by robots

For a number of years, we have experienced a ‘social care crisis’. This isn’t just an attention grabbing headline – it’s a reality. According to statistics released by the NHS at the beginning of the year, 1.6 million carers will be needed by 2020 to handle the demand for care in the UK alone. Responding to social care requirements is affecting countries well beyond the UK, however. Worryingly, as the number of people in need of care increases, the amount of willing carers is going down. Due to the sensitive and difficult nature of the job, fewer people want to enter the sector. Working as a carer is also underpaid. As both private and public health facilities struggle to exist with the funds they already have, it’s a vicious circle. If only there were some way to create a production line of qualified carers. . . maybe, there is.

Advanced carebotics
Combine advanced robotics with machine learning techniques and the ability to utilise patient data, and all of a sudden the lack of human carers becomes less of a problem. Why? Because these bots could help those in need of care to carry out everyday tasks without another person’s input. Some of the carebots already used today include medication dispensers, telepresence robots like Aubot’s Teleport and robotic limbs which are controlled by the patient. Automata’s Eva, showcased at Disruption Summit Europe recently is a robotic arm built with manufacturing in mind. However, this kind of technology could be easily repurposed to pick up a cup of tea, for instance, instead of a spanner. While these machines are indeed clever, they’re largely passive and don’t facilitate back and forth interactions. Social robots, on the other hand, do. Softbank’s Pepper robot is perfectly suited to a healthcare based role, as are a plethora of other social robots that can read and respond to different emotions. Through shared neural networks, carebots could reach the required standard of training far quicker and cheaper than humans, who go through a lengthy process of gaining experience before they can take on standard carer tasks without supervision. This summer, a white paper discussing social care robotics for independent living was released at the International Robotics Show. In other words, these conversations are already well underway.

How will carebots disrupt social care?
Carebots could alleviate the strain on care homes, hospitals, surgeries and domestic environments. One of the simplest but most effective abilities of healthcare robots is tracking patients, especially if they live alone. Of course, while some people would feel comforted by this, others would see it as an invasion of privacy. The more friendly these robots are, the more likely people are to accept them. By engaging in conversation, humans could verbally instruct robots to perform a variety of tasks. Even if the patient cannot or doesn’t want to articulate their requirements, AI enabled image recognition could enable carebots to understand whether or not they were in pain or discomfort. Used in this way, carebots could potentially replace human carers – although they will always be integral in the sector. A patient in a palliative care unit, for example, would probably feel more comfortable if they were looked after by mortals instead of machines. Caring is an inherently human task, and the emotional quality of interacting with another person is likely to far exceed that of a robot. . . at the moment, anyway. Even so, the fact remains that robots would be much cheaper and easier to train than people, sharing experience within collective neural networks.

In short, carebots aren’t going to take over your local care home. But they could start to crop up in healthcare environments, lessening the workload of human carers and giving patients a greater level of independence. In certain situations, there is a distinct need to retain the human touch. However, what better use for a chatty little social robot or a mechanical arm than completing simple every day jobs for an elderly or disabled owner, affording them a higher quality of life? The reality of this happening depends heavily on investment. The healthcare industry is notoriously underfunded, but one the cost of building and teaching a robot is less than (or even the same as) training a human, employing artificially intelligent carebots will become a no brainer.

In future, could carebots help to solve ongoing social care issues? Will a robot ever be able to provide the same level of care as a human? How likely are patients to accept the help of carebots? Comment below with your thoughts and opinions.