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This article is by Featured Blogger Adi Gaskell from his blog The Horizons Tracker. Republished with the author’s permission.
Technology in healthcare is perhaps at its most valuable in areas where skills shortages are at their strongest. Nowhere is this perhaps more so than in social care, so it's interesting to read the latest research briefing from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which looks at the use of robotic technology in social care.
The report suggests that whilst the need for support in the sector is considerable, it remains far from certain whether robots can play a leading role in plugging that gap.
"Many of the robots and robotic devices developed for social care appear to still be at the conceptual or design phase," the authors say. "A key question is whether robots and robotic technology can integrate into existing social care environments, and with current technology, or replace them altogether."
One of the largest projects in this space is the EU backed GrowMeUp, which has seen the development of a robot, called GrowMu. The machine is developed with a number of advanced algorithms that allow it to adapt to changes, both in its environment and the person/s it’s caring for. This allows it both to develop an understanding of the routine of the individual, and how that routine can be improved upon. For instance, it might suggest new dietary changes or warn that a step might result in a fall.
“Adaptive learning and multi-objective decision-making algorithms work so the robot can learn from the user’s speech and behaviour patterns and recognise when circumstances require action,” the team explain.
Growing with the patient
For instance, the robot will be able to use facial recognition and oral dialogues to remember the needs of each person, including their schedule, and provide timely reminders when required.
The machine is programmed to "grow" with their patient and can therefore suggest improvements to their lifestyle to ensure quality of life is maintained. This could include new exercise routines or the arrangement of social activities.
GrowMu comes with a cloud-based platform that allows users to access a huge amount of data as well as a social care network that comprises not only formal carers but friends, neighbours and other older people. Through this, a set of daily activities are provided to suit the needs of the individual.
“We have definitely brought social robots closer to society. With intelligent dialogue, older people can effortlessly and intuitively interact with the system using natural speech,” the team explain.
What is perhaps most interesting however is how such robots are perceived. There is a strong perception that older people are less welcoming of new technologies, but the evidence doesn't support such a conclusion.
A recent study found that senior citizens are quite happy to accept robots as helpers, but are much more concerned about ceding too much control to them. Key to this relationship was the mental model that the senior citizens had formed about robots. In other words, if they went into the relationship thinking positively, or negatively, about robots, then that had a big impact on how the relationship went.
“When interfaces are designed to be almost human-like in their autonomy, seniors may react to them with fear, skepticism and other negative emotions,” the researchers say. “But, with those considerations in mind, there are actually several areas where older people would accept robot help.”
A similar study conducted on the Isle of Wight found that people were overwhelmingly positive about the role of new technology in helping carers support their loved ones. This was especially so when the robots enhanced the physical capabilities of the carer, making them stronger and protecting their joints.
Of course, that's not to say that robot helpers are likely to be seen in a care home near you any time soon, but there are certainly interesting moves in that direction. Indeed, the POST report identifies £6 billion in potential savings that could be made via the introduction of robotics into the sector.
This benefit could be particularly strong in areas with inadequate care at the moment, as the technology could free up the human staff to do more of the pastoral things that humans are best at. Nonetheless, the report also identifies concerns that robots will be used instead of humans rather than in addition to them, resulting in a fall in care. Likewise, the introduction of robots into care homes will require training to be given to staff so that they can interact effectively with them.
"However, this may have knock-on effects if the social care sector is required to buy-in such skills given potential salary differentials, raising the question about whether this outweighs any efficiencies created by the use of robotics," the authors concede.
As with so many new technologies, there are a number of hurdles to overcome before robots are a common feature of care environments, including keeping them secure from hackers, ensuring compliance with privacy regulations and legal challenges surrounding liability for decisions made by the robots. I would suggest it's only a matter of time before robots begin to enter the healthcare workforce en masse however.