The computer that develops a mind of its own is a staple of science fiction. From 2001: A Space Odyssey (‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’) to the Terminator series, it taps into a deep fear that one day technology will become more powerful than people.
This is a harmless, enjoyable fiction, at least for the foreseeable future. However, the more neutral belief lying behind it – that technology, and robots in particular, will one day be able to do many of the tasks that people do – can be an unfortunate distraction for social care from the real, immediate benefits that technology can bring to the sector.
That was illustrated recently by the news that Pepper, the robot helper touted as – among other things – a future care worker, had been unplugged by its makers. The Japanese company SoftBank said that production been ‘paused for a while’ and would only be started ‘when it is needed’.
That may well mean never. Despite intense publicity, the closest Pepper came to active service in social care was a brief trial as a ‘companion’ in a care home. I saw a demonstration of Pepper once, intended to show that it could lead exercise classes for older people, and thought it unwieldy and unconvincing. It took ages to set up and was not remotely a substitute for a real, living person. It was undoubtedly cute, but so is a giant panda and I would not want one of those in a care home either.
The more publicity that Pepper received, the more you felt we were missing out on coverage of the really exciting technological developments in social care. These make more efficient, analyse or enhance what people do rather than seek to replace them and so offer social care far more immediate, realistic opportunities than the likes of Pepper.
You can see a list of some of them here, the products of an NHS-funded programme which ran from April 2016 to March 2021 and funded over 100 projects with a total investment of £22.8 million. These covered less glamorous but vital areas, such as information sharing between health and social care and technology to directly improve care, such as acoustic monitoring, circadian lighting, digital care planning and electronic medicines management.
The programme claims it will have generated future benefits of £127m and, while this is a suspiciously specific number, there are surely benefits to be had. Why then does it not necessarily feel like change is happening at the speed it should?
A report from Future Care Capital into the home care tech start-up market earlier in the year adds weight to that feeling. It said that, while there were major opportunities to improve adult social care provision through the use of technology, there was only a ‘small niche of home care companies using technology in a truly innovative way’. A recent piece in Wired magazine, initially enthusiastic that ‘startups are scrambling to fix the social care system’, quickly concluded that the impact was, in fact, limited. It succinctly summed up the reasons why: ‘A system that is massively fragmented, underfunded and unable to serve millions of people in need, is not going to be noticeably changed by technological innovation.’
Although that remains the case, there is just a hint that some things are changing as a result of COVID-19. An audit of technological readiness of the sector found that fewer providers now regarded themselves as digital novices than before the pandemic and that around half of social care companies were using technology like digital care planning. One in five even see themselves as ‘digital experts’.
So it may be that the future is already here, just – as the sci-fi writer William Gibson famously said – unevenly distributed. It does not involve a smiley robot taking exercise classes but, honestly, that’s for the best.