Comment from Clive: Can robots put the social back into social care?

clive-gilbertWould you entrust a robot with your care? According to a poll conducted by YouGov last year, around half of us would like robots to perform domestic tasks for disabled and older people.

The UK is at the forefront of innovation when it comes to building autonomous systems for the home. Dyson’s 360 robot vacuum cleaner is heavily influenced by the company’s collaboration with Imperial College London which has produced world leading research on robot vision. The University of Edinburgh is studying how a robot might be able to decipher their owner’s instructions to learn to carry out a daily living task by interpreting their verbal communications, eye movements and hand gestures. Perhaps the most ambitious project is Middlesex University and the University of Bedfordshire’s three-year project to design social humanoid robots with capabilities ranging from giving medication and connecting to household appliances, to providing companionship and facilitating communication with loved ones and health care professionals.

Robots have long fired our imagination for a host of reasons. For some, they represent the zenith of technology’s usefulness, possessing an almost boundless capacity to perform tasks we would find too hard or too boring. Others warn of the harm all seeing and doing automatons could do to humanity; evolving to dominate and enslave their former masters, or worse.

What was once considered the stuff of science fiction is now rapidly encroaching on reality. The International Federation of Robotics’ most recent review of the state of the industry shows that, during 2015, worldwide robot sales for factory use and professional services rose year-on-year by 15% and 25% respectively. The Federation has estimated the worldwide market value of service robots for personal and domestic use in 2015 was US$2.2 billion.

Time for a reboot

The prospect of robots with some degree of artificial intelligence entering our homes and workplaces in the near future has precipitated more clearheaded discussion about what we might want from them and how we can achieve those goals.

A timely new white paper Robotics in Social Care: A Connected Care EcoSystem for Independent Living authored by the University of Sheffield’s Professor Tony Prescott and Designability’s own Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly for the UK-RAS Network aims to engage in this kind of forward thinking in the context of social care.  The growing demand for social care, driven by a combination of population growth, improved healthcare and unhealthy lifestyles is stretching the labour market and placing an increasing strain on public finances. The white paper argues that the robots and autonomous systems are at a stage in their development where they could soon start to play a key role in alleviating some of these pressures.

The authors set out a possible time line that suggests that, by 2025, robotic apparatus installed in the home will be able to undertake a range of physical care tasks such as dressing and feedback. Furthermore, by 2035, robots will be able to offer safe and dexterous support and be capable of understanding the social and personal needs of the people they serve.

They conclude that, while these technologies can never replace people in the provision of social and emotional support, they should be seen as part of a broader strategy for meeting the health and social care needs of an ageing population. This would see home, residential and hospital care as a continuum linked by technologies that use people’s health data and personal preferences to provide tailored care.

Restoring autonomy

It is important to point out that there is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done before robots will be ready to feed, bathe and dress us. Many of the abilities that humans take for granted, from grasping and manipulating complex objects, to sizing up social situations, continue to confound the scientific community and will need to be better understood if our android creations are going to stand a chance of inheriting those skills. The challenges include technical questions such as how to make computers ascribe meaning to events so they can later recall them as memories in relevant contexts and sustainability concerns around energy efficiency and the practicalities of battery durations and recharging.

The ethical quandaries that surround the growth of robotics are manifold, especially in an application with the sensitivities of social care. Systems will need to be designed to ensure people’s rights to privacy and security are protected. They will have to be reliable, transparent in their actions and behaviours and respect moral codes when making decisions. There are also worries about the impact robots will have on their users who may form inappropriate emotional attachments to their machines and carers who may be made redundant.

However, these challenges should not be allowed to undermine or obscure the potential benefits of robots and autonomous systems for people with care and support needs. The fact that the care would be provided by machines rather than loved ones or professional carers would afford many people a level of privacy, freedom and even dignity that is currently unobtainable. Far from putting carers out of work, a care system that effectively integrates robots would lead to a renaissance for the profession by allowing care workers to focus on their clients social and emotional needs.

This vision will require new and continuously updated systems of governance and regulation. The groundwork must be laid now.

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