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Into Perspective: Robots in care
Will robots work in adult social care?

This month, our experts are looking at how robots will work in social care. What benefits do they bring? What are the downsides? What do we want them to be able to do, and, importantly, will they be able to do it?

Studies continue to pop up about the use of robotics in social care. Some look at the implications of robots from an ethical point of view, some look at how people in social care settings interact with robots and some examine the benefits and outcomes achieved. But what is available and what can these robots do?

How far have robots come?

Robots first came on to the social care scene in a big way when Pepper was launched in 2014. Pepper is a 4-foot-tall humanoid robot that has been designed with the ability to read emotions and interact with others. It has arms and a face, which contains two discreet cameras, and can hold conversations with people using its ‘voice’. It also has a screen on its front which allows it to show videos and play games with people, and the robot can even send emails and store people’s personality traits.

Pepper has been used worldwide for various tasks but in social care it is seen as a tool for companionship and entertainment. The idea is that care providers would own a Pepper, which could then interact with clients and make sure everyone is okay. It can also report to care staff if it picks up on cues that someone isn’t okay or if someone has said something to it that could be a cause for concern.

There is currently little inclination from the sector for Pepper to be used to provide personal care, and it isn’t able to support with paperwork, but the hope is that this robot will be able to alleviate some of the strain on care workers who can have more time for one-to-one interaction with residents, while Pepper keeps others entertained.

Robots as pets

Robotic animals are another much-discussed technology that has appeared in recent years. These have been around for longer than humanoid robots, but offer similar options in terms of solutions.

The animals vary, from a baby seal to a sleeping cat, but all of them are covered in fur and sized to fit on a person’s lap.

People are able to stroke the animals, and the robots will respond to human touch. For example, they might ‘purr’ when being stroked; some will also move to look like they are washing themselves.

Robot animals in social care are often seen as a tool for people with dementia, who sometimes find that it brings memories of old pets, and many people find that stroking and caring for the animal produces a calming effect for those who are experiencing stress or agitation.

Future applications

The use of robots in social care is on the rise. Benefits could include better outcomes for people in care and more meaningful interactions with care staff.
But there is a risk that the wider use of robotics could cause some services to spend less time with residents, leaving the robots to do all of the emotional support. Are robots ready to take this on and should we rely on them in this way?

The best _____ for the job

Social care is at its best when focused on relationships. That is difficult to achieve in a sector that has been neglected by the government for decades. Currently, vacancies for care workers stand at over 110,000, meaning that care work is often rushed and task-focused. Societal perceptions of social care – that it is low-skilled and revolves around personal care – do not help; in the short-term, the industry is looking at other solutions of filling these gaps. The solution on people’s lips? Robots.

So, what do robots do well? Consistent quality service, repetitive tasks, reliable precision – all delivered without complaint. Robots can be produced in large numbers, and tailored to perform a similar role in different locations, for different people. And, seemingly putting the nail in the coffin of the care worker, they request no rest, sick-leave, or holidays. However, the question isn’t ‘Should a robot do the job of a care worker?’, but ‘Which parts of a care worker’s job should be done by a robot?’.

What do care workers do well? Human interactions, relationships, empathy, understanding, emotion and patience.

Care workers are great at helping fight loneliness, depression and feelings of isolation. We help people feel cared for, listened to, and human; for some people that is the most important need. On top of this, care workers are great at personalisation, understanding and adapting to individual needs. Really getting to know the person, through meaningful and deep interactions, and adapting the way we work and what we do to suit the person’s needs, likes, dislikes and triggers.

Crucially, care workers are able to provide human touch, and by that I mean literal physical contact. When words cannot reassure or support, and understanding silence is not enough, it is a hug or holding a hand that can make the real difference.

For me, robots could be perfect companions for moving and handling tasks, medication administration, and supporting daily routines.

For a sustainable social care future, we cannot think that we have to choose between innovation and tradition, between robots and care workers. Only by integration of both, with the best of both, can we deliver the best care and the best support for people’s wellbeing.

Karolina Gerlich, Chief Executive and Founding Director, National Association of Care and Support Workers (NACAS)


Could provide effective companionship

We’re already well into 2020 and the world doesn’t yet resemble what we were promised it might in terms of hoverboards, self-driving cars, and affordable space travel, but it is becoming ever more apparent that robots, and the science behind robotics is gaining traction in social care.

Over the past few years we’ve seen robots being used in hotels, and to deliver parcels to homes, but alongside these well publicised uses, ‘robots’ have also been used in care settings.

There’s a growing number of care providers using ‘robot animals’, such as PARO the seal. PARO is designed to learn intonation of voice and recognise whether it is being praised, or greeted. It can also recognise how strongly it is being petted.

Pepper has also been used in a number of care environments. Essentially Pepper looks like the stereotypical humanoid robot we were promised would serve us in 2020; it can perceive emotions and is designed to maximally mimic human interaction.

Neither of these solutions actually provides any personal care – but both offer proven evidence of how they can effectively provide companionship.

Other studies I’ve seen are focused more on how robots can be used as tools to reach set, defined goals, rather than as companions. Robots that encourage a particular movement, for example, can aid rehabilitation and physiotherapy. Where robots have been used successfully in other sectors, they have been used to carry out repetitive, often time-consuming tasks – freeing up a skilled workforce to spend their time in a more effective way.

Animal companion robots can be great; not every care home can have a cat, or a dog, or a seal. But whilst they can respond to voice and touch, they can’t offer real, true companionship.

I believe we need to be mindful of the fact that, in spite of some of the promoted benefits of using robots in a health and social care setting, we must never lose sight of the fact that if a person being cared for is expressing feelings of loneliness that could be alleviated with actual human interaction, we should always consider the underlying cause of that, and focus efforts not on using technology to tackle symptoms, but to tackle the causes.

Humanoid robots who can recognise someone’s emotion and respond accordingly? Or a human who can recognise emotion and respond accordingly? In my opinion, we’re not there just yet.

Claire Sutton, Digital Transformation Lead, National Care Forum


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