Thought Leadership

What are the limits of robots as caregivers?

February 3, 2014

By Christine Kennard at Health Pro

Like many other countries, Japan is experiencing an increasingly elderly population and a shortage of care workers. Of course machines have been used for decades in the care of the elderly. Everyone is familiar with hoists, electric beds, wheel chairs and so on, but with computer technology the potential range of activities increases massively.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on an aspect of human-robot interaction involving Paro, a robot modeled after a baby seal. Weighing in at just 2.7kg, roughly the weight of a baby and therefore much lighter than a real baby seal, it has the ability to respond to light, sound and touch. It can sense the direction of a voice and it responds positively to being stroked and petted. When tested with dementia patients the results were argued to be positive and levels of cortisone, the stress hormone, were said to have decreased.

Interesting. But should we draw a line between robots that help or can take over dull, repetitive and often heavy tasks such as scrubbing baths, cleaning toilets and making beds and the emotional support and encouragement that comes from real people?

I suspect this is a debate that will gradually move further into the spotlight. As our needs and dependencies increase is there such a problem in having a helper that never gets angry or frustrated or bored? The current thinking behind robot caregivers is that they are not intended to replace human beings but it’s equally difficult to imagine the limits of their role unless we choose to legislate or place restrictions on what future technologies might offer.

Robots are already capable of undertaking certain surgical procedures with total precision. They are unencumbered by shaking muscles, distractions, worries or illness. Maybe this is too much for some people? Maybe they’d be happier with the Panasonic hair-washing robot that scans your head and applies just the right amount of pressure with its 16 “fingers” and then provides one of several head massages during the shampoo and rinse phase?

How much is too much? Well, maybe that’s up to us to decide?




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