Japan believes robots could help to care for people in ageing societies, and address the shortage of human carers. But can these 'carebots' really meet the needs of the elderly?
Tokyo’s Shin-tomi nursing home is probably the most high-tech nursing home in the world. The residents interact with around 20 different types of robots designed to assist with their care. These range from Paro, a cute robotic seal designed to provide comfort and reduce loneliness, to humanoid robots like Pepper, which can hold rudimentary conversations. And, for the most part, the residents love them.
Shin-tomi is effectively a showcase for Japan’s vision for the future of elderly care. By 2035 around a third of the country’s population will be aged 65 or over, and its historic aversion to immigration means there will be a shortfall of 380,000 specialised workers by 2025. In order to plug the gap, the government has poured millions into the carebot industry, which is gradually developing new models and designs.
There’s Intuition Robotics’ ElliQ robot – announced at CES earlier this year – which is designed to befriend the elderly and make and receive video calls. While Samsung’s Bot Care – a two-foot tall wheeled robot that can monitor people’s blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and sleeping state – also rolled on stage during the company’s CES press conference. Aside from its monitoring abilities, Bot Care can also call emergency services, offer exercise guidance and daily health briefings, remind people to take their medication, and even play music to reduce stress.
Although it’s still early days for the carebot market, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates it could be worth around £2.8 billion in Japan alone by 2035. And with the populations of other Western countries also ageing rapidly and care workers in similarly short supply, there could be a healthy export market for its carebots too (a report released last year suggested that the NHS could improve social care and save millions of pounds by embracing carebots).
However, they’re not a silver bullet for the care crisis, says Cynthia Matuszek, assistant professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “There's no simple solution [to the shortage in carers],” she explains. “But some of the activities of daily life like going to the bathroom, cleaning yourself, feeding yourself when your hands are too arthritic to work a can opener, being worried about falling – those are fundamentally physical activities, and that’s where robots can help.”
Scott Corfe, chief economist at the Social Market Foundation, a think-tank which last year released a report on the use of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies in the home, says there is emerging evidence that carebots can improve the living conditions of those that need care. However, he adds that “a key point we make in our report is that carebots must be complements to human-based care, rather than substitutes. Carebots will fail to get public support if they are seen merely as a cost-saving tool which could leave those in care even more isolated than before.”
As such, the Social Market Foundation has argued that the government should announce a “no robot replacement” promise to assure people receiving social care that robots and remote-monitoring systems will not completely replace their interaction with human carers.
However, there may well be certain aspects of personal care that some people may prefer to have carried out by a robot than a loved one or care worker. To put it bluntly, would you rather be helped to use the toilet by a human or a machine?
Matuszek says that many of the objections to the use of robots in elderly often stem from the idea that your family should be caring for you in old age, but that this isn’t always what elderly people want. “I feel like very few of the arguments that this is fundamentally unethical – and I think this is really meaningful – none of them come from actual seniors,” she says. “And relatively few of them come from people who are caring for seniors.”
It’s also important to distinguish between the different types of robots in development, she adds. “We tend to think of robots as providing for physical needs, and in practice a lot of the work that's happening concerns people with cognitive or social decline, such as a robot that can encourage you to sit and finish a meal instead of getting up and wandering off.”
One study by the University of Brighton showed that spending time with Paro, the cuddly seal-like robot mentioned earlier, reduced the agitation and aggression of dementia patients, lowered their stress levels and improved their speech. The robot, which was first introduced in 2004, can respond to its name and learn from its surroundings, and reacts to touch with movement and sound.
“It reduces a lot of the unpleasant things associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. George W. Leeson, director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, University of Oxford, who has seen the positive effect Paro can have on people first hand. “It even reduces the medication that’s needed to help calm people down.” He adds that while some care professionals might think technologies like Paro are patronising, “once they actually have hands-on experience with them their view completely changes.”
Naturally carebots are not the only solution to the shortage of carers in ageing societies: a universal basic income or the introduction of a four-day working week would also give people more time and freedom to care for elderly parents. But with the global elderly population set to more than double by 2050, it seems likely that many more nursing homes will resemble Shin-tomi in future, and that we’ll move into them later thanks to carebots that help us remain independent at home. And that, surely, is nothing to fear.
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