Robots as Future Caregivers

Health Professional

Tucked away amongst the tons of supplies recently blasted into space from Japan's Space Center was a 34-centimeter high talking robot. It comes equipped with voice-and facial-recognition technology and will provide some level of companionship to Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. It represents another technological breakthrough in robot technology and could provide caregivers of the future with much needed help.

What is interesting about the Japanese love affair with robotics is the fact they are gradually moving towards a position where they are actually become useful. Japanese officials have announced the roll out of nursing robots that will be able to assist caregivers with those difficult tasks like lifting and supporting. Although their functionality will be limited the government hope to lease them on a monthly basis.

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?