edical robot in an operating room with digital display

As Robots Teed Up to Be Next-Gen Carers, Ethical Questions Surface

Robots and machine learning have entered the mainstream thinking of business and society at an extraordinary rate in the early months of 2017. As I drove back from the Easter holidays, a BBC Radio 4 programme was anticipating the use of robots as carers, not only to perform assistive caring tasks but also to mitigate loneliness in old age.

A robot ministering to the medical, spiritual and social needs of people in their later years seems to be the final frontier of human-robot partnership. And the radio interview pointed out how digital disruption creates new demand for brilliant coders, designers and a cohort of an entirely new profession – robot ethicists.

Professor Irena Papadopoulos, an expert in trans-cultural nursing, makes the economic case for digital intervention in the social care system. “Assistive, intelligent robots for older people could relieve pressures in hospitals and care homes as well as improving care delivery at home and promote independent living for the elderly,” she argues.

A prototype robot is expected to be released onto the market next year, making the prospect of robots as carers a reality. But this begs the question: what kind of partnership will exist between robot and carer? Will robots ever be able to anticipate and fully interpret patient needs through their gestures and body language? Will a hand silently outstretched be understood as need for a pill or a reassuring squeeze?

In other words, are robots really expected to be companions to the elderly or simply programmed to act as a caring butler who dishes out the medication? Human communication is not a ping-pong exchange but a constant minuet of non-verbal cues and altogether a richer dynamic. Researchers are getting to grips with the extraordinary complexity of non-verbal gesturing and the idea of shared attention: if two people are discussing an object, subliminally they will track each other’s gaze.

Are robots really expected to be companions to the elderly or simply programmed to act as a caring butler who dishes out the medication?
There is already evidence of success in the use of social robots. The University of Hertfordshire has designed and built Kaspar, a social robot used in a therapeutic setting. Kaspar is child-sized and supports children with autism in schools, homes and hospitals to develop their social interaction skills.

Robots have been sent to Mars, the bottom of the ocean and to the core of a volcano. But navigating the nuances and intricacies of human interaction is infinitely more complex. And as researchers and coders aim for equivalency – in the field of communication at least – expect ethicists to step centre stage and work closely with HR teams in this new era of digital.

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Helen Beckett

Author: Helen Beckett

Helen Beckett is the Community Manager of the Business Value Exchange. She has been a writer and editor for over 20 years and takes a particular interest in the challenges facing the CIO in today’s business climate.