Robots and the elderly

By Robert Hickson 26/06/2013

There is much optimism in some quarters that health-care robots and other advanced technologies will help meet the anticipated demand for more health-care workers as the proportion of old folks increases [NZ data here].

Rodney Brooks of  Rethink Robotics talks about this with the BBC, along with the need to think about designing robots from the users point of view rather than the engineer’s.




[As an aside he also makes the good point that current industrial robots will not meet the needs of small manufacturers, who require cheaper, safer and more versatile robots – like Baxter]

However, Rebecca Mead in an enlightening and compassionate article in the New Yorker, describes a more human-centred approach in some US dementia-care units. These have reduced the reliance on medication and rigid hospital rules. They are getting some wonderful and more dignified results with patients, as well as reducing the stress and frustrations of nursing staff and doctors. Similar to Rodney Brooks’ approach, they have considered care from the patients perspective. This has involved redesigning the facilities, as well as retraining staff. It can also reduce costs (or at least not blow them out) because of the lower use of medicines, so seems likely to be able to applicable more widely.

This illustrates that while new technologies can help, we shouldn’t just jump straight to technological solutions for pressing needs. Robots may play an important role in aged care in the future, but they’ll need to be much more than replacement manual labourers. If the type of care Mead describes is the objective, then robots will also need to be great communicators and able to modify their behaviour for different individuals and situations. That will be a big challenge, but artificial intelligence seems to be moving slowly in that direction.