When most people talk about robots in healthcare they often are referring to the self-guided machines that help deliver medications, food and other items to patient rooms.
Robots of this type can be very helpful and alleviate some of the mechanical tasks on overburdened staff. There is, however, another type of robot that is making in-roads in healthcare – companion robots like Softbank’s Pepper and Intelligent Systems Research’s PARO.
Instead of performing a physical action, the aim of these robots is to serve as patient companions. PARO, for example, has been used extensively in Japan with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia – where it has helped reduce wandering, agitation, depression and loneliness. Below is a short video from Alzheimer’s Australia about PARO.
From a technology standpoint this is an amazing triumph. A machine providing emotional support to a patient was the stuff of Science Fiction a decade ago. At the same time, however, do these robots represent a failure of society? Does the fact that these robots exist demonstrate that we would rather delegate human contact with elderly patients to machines rather than go ourselves?
The #hcldr community debated this topic on a recent tweetchat.
A manual analysis of the tweets shows that approximately 80% of the community saw robot companions as a positive development. Most people, like Grace Cordova, pointed to the fact that our aging population already outstrips the existing infrastructure so why shouldn’t we invest in robots to help us manage (as a society).
— Enlightening Results (@GraceCordovano) August 16, 2017
Some responded with tempered positivity. Jon McBride saw the potential in robots but cautioned against relying on them solely for human companionship.
T1 It is a triumph as an extension of helpful possibilities, but not as a replacement for human contact.#hcldr
— Jon McBride (@jamcbride) August 16, 2017
Many echoed Jon’s sentiment.
T1: Robots might be able to help with tasks, but they can’t provide care and connection that humans require, and those are important. #HCLDR
— Alz Greater LA (@ALZGLA) August 16, 2017
Personally I see robots as an innovative solution to addressing a problem that already exists – the lack of human interaction with elderly patients. I believe we have to admit to ourselves that staff are stretched thin in elder-care facilities and there are long stretches where patients are on their own. If those hours can be filled by interacting with a robot companion that responds in a human or animal-like way…I’m all for it.
What are your thoughts?