After successful international trials, the wheeled robot “Pepper” will begin to be deployed in some UK care homes. This comes nearly a year after the government announced a £34 million investment in autonomous technologies. The care robots will help meet the needs of an “ageing society”, with one in seven people expected to be over 75 years old by 2045.
The robots will operate through machine learning, which means that care home residents will not need to learn how to use the technology but rather the robots will learn about them. Every time the robots interact with individual patients, they learn more about their interests and background. This enables them to initiate tailored conversations that are culturally competent and provide entertainment for care home residents by playing their favourite music, for example. Patient data can also be harnessed so that the robots can offer practical help in the form of medicine reminders and monitoring vital signs.
The trials discovered that there was a significant boost in mental health for older adults after they interacted with robots for up to 18 hours across two weeks. The robots were particularly key in reducing loneliness, which is a pertinent problem in a stretched social care system. Loneliness could further be addressed by robots having the capability to initiate video calls with a patient’s family or having child-oriented activities to encourage more frequent visits by grandchildren. Financially, robot carers could potentially lead to a 65% cost reduction for patients’ families per year.
It is important to note that several limitations were also found in the trials. These centred around the robots feeling too superficial and lacking personalisation during conversations. The researchers additionally found that some of the gestures and head movements were distracting.
There are many other challenges related to rolling out robot carers. The robots could be fixed with surveillance equipment, which could present a threat to a patient’s private life. Legally, the mechanical and AI nature of the robots would make it impossible to attribute them as a liability in case of any serious malfunctioning. Robot carers, at this point, do not impact the employment of nurses. However, should they prove to assure a high level of productivity at lower costs, this may entice care homes to reduce hiring. Bill Gates suggested a tax on using robots to mitigate this outcome, but more extensive studies are required to determine the optimal ratio of human to robot carers in healthcare.
Lastly, numerous rejectors of robot carers say that they only paper over the cracks of the social care system. What is really needed is an efficient investment in improving staff levels and training.