Frank is suffering from cognitive decline and has early signs of dementia. For peace of mind, his son purchased a domestic robot that helps with chores around the home and monitors Frank’s health, so that his son knows he is safe and well.
Frank’s dementia is advancing and he often doesn’t recognise his ex-wife, but he bonds with the robot and they form a relationship that helps him to both cope and come to terms with his cognitive decline.
Robot and Frank is a prescient film from 2012 that told the story of an ex-jewel thief and his ‘care-bot’ robot. Right now, it may be considered science fiction but we are moving towards a future where the development of AI and automation could have the answers to the huge care crisis that we are facing as a society.
In the UK, we are quickly moving towards an ageing society with a projection that by 2024, the over 65 age group will make up 20% of the population. Most worrying, is that in 2024, there will be more people in the over 65 age group than the under 15-year-olds. This means that we are facing a situation of having to find care solutions for a population, that will not have enough people in subsequent generations to care for it.
Dementia is the fastest growing disability in later life, overtaking cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease. By 2025, it’s anticipated that there will be over one million people living with dementia in the UK who will need dedicated and specialist care.
As a culture, the UK does not have the same familial responsibilities and networks that other societies do and this has meant that the NHS is becoming overburdened with trying to service care needs. The upcoming crisis that the NHS faces in dealing with the ageing population, is one that needs a solution.
This is a worldwide issue. In the US, by 2030, the over 65 population is predicted to be 20.2%. Germany and Italy already support a society that has over 20% of over 65-year-olds and that is set to grow to well over 30% by 2050 according to research by Pew.
Japan is already facing a care crisis, with over a quarter of their population now in the over 65 age group. Their Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare isis predicting that by 2025, they will have a shortage of 230,000 caregivers to support the elderly population. The world has been watching how Japan is dealing with their crisis, to seek guidance in how to tackle the upcoming issues.
“We will be reaching in the OECD, a stage in the next 20 years where there are more people over the age of 50 than there are under.”
Dr. George Leeson, co-director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing
To facilitate the needs of caring for the elderly, one solution that has been dominating the discussion above all others, is the introduction of ‘care-bots’. Rather than a dystopian vision of elderly people being fed and cared for by a robot, with little to no human interaction, the idea is that automation and AI can help to support caregivers so that they can do a better job.
The IPPR think tank has been well reported on this year, in their findings that investment into automation in the NHS could save up to £12.5 billion annually. This is based on the implementation of automation that can take over administrative and repetitive jobs, which then allows staff the time to focus on patient care.
The development of AI and automation in industry has been much debated because of the fears that the use of technology will displace people, with the result being a reduction in jobs. However, the application of technologies has the potential to revolutionise society by taking away mundane roles and redistributing the workforce into more creative and innovative roles. AI should be seen as an advancement that can create a better society and we should not have any fear for a ‘Terminator’ style future.
One of the benefits of using AI in healthcare is the faster diagnosis and treatment of illness. Algorithms have been developed that assess radiology images and which can detect lung and skin cancer better than a radiologist. When dealing with illnesses such as cancer, the speed of diagnosis and the right treatment does make a big difference.
Through the analysis of vast amounts of data that is not possible by human hand, optimised treatment plans can be better managed and offered to patients.
As the think tank report referenced, by freeing up staff time from mundane tasks, then more time can be spent on direct patient care. Chatbots designed as virtual health assistants can take care of organising appointments and can field basic healthcare questions – freeing up a great deal of admin time.
“Almost one third of the tasks now done by nurses, and nearly one quarter of that done by hospital doctors could be done by robots and artificial intelligence systems.”
The main focus of the development of ‘care-bots’ is that they can assist the elderly to live independently at home and also, they can assist the care workers who take care of them.
Imagine a world where the home assistant bots could do housework and help with dressing, cooking, feeding and moving around. This would contribute significantly to the quality of life for older people and would enable them to live at home for longer.
In hospitals, bots could assist with drug administration, meal distribution, moving and lifting and could allow nurses more time to take care of critical tasks.
Most importantly, a bot could help with intimate situations such as using bedpans or toilets and being lifted in and out of a bath, helping to retain their dignity and to increase their mental well-being.
By employing bots to undertake all these tasks, staff would then have more time to focus on patient care and they would also have more time for focussed care, having conversations and providing companionship that would reduce the loneliness that is a reality for many older people.
Robear, was developed in 2015 by Riken Brain Science Institute in Japan to lift patients and transfer them from beds to wheelchairs. Bots designed to lift and move patients can alleviate the physical strain on caregivers and can also enable people with disabilities to be more independent.
Obi, in development since 2006, is a robotic arm that can allow someone with a physical disability to feed themselves. The loss of dignity that results from a person having to be fed by someone else can make meal times a stressful time and can result in some patients no longer having an appetite or enjoying their food. By regaining independence of their own feeding, a person can begin to enjoy mealtimes again, without any time pressure of feeling uncomfortable.
Palro, is a humanoid robot developed by Fujisoft to stimulate fitness and cognitive function by playing games and quizzes with people. The bot has been used in 600 care homes across Japan.
Paro, is a robotic seal inspired by animal therapy and is designed to help people with dementia feel more socially engaged. The seal-bot was shown, in a 2015 study in Australia, to have a positive influence on the quality of life for older people with dementia and following trials, Paro now looks set to be introduced to UK hospitals.
Pepper, is a humanoid robot developed by Softbanks sold as a companion robot in Japan and introduced to the UK by Southend-on-Sea council in 2017. Pepper can play games, chat to you, can speak 12 languages and can also perceive emotions and adapt accordingly. The council intend to employ Pepper’s skills for ‘community engagement, awareness raising, and to facilitate reminiscence activities’.
A 2016 YouGov survey in the UK found that 50% of respondents were comfortable with robots performing domestic tasks for the elderly or the disabled.
Although there are many positive reports and studies about the use of care-bots with elderly people and those living with dementia, not everyone is ‘pro robot’. Professor Maggie Boden stated that ‘Computer companions worry me very much’ as she has concerns that AI machines cannot interpret abstractions such as loyalty and the moral consequences of this.
The ethics of teaching machines to think and interact is a vast subject of great depth and is not something easily answered. However, the discussion here is not about the use of bots as a human substitute but is about facilitating and increasing the quality of life for people who need care support. By undertaking supportive tasks, care-bots could significantly aid older people and those taking care of them to have a better quality of life. More importantly, bots may be the only way that we can realistically facilitate the level of care that is going to be required to support the ageing population.
Other objections to automation include the loss of jobs, much like the Luddites in the 19th century. We can now look back and see that their fears were unfounded and in the future, we will most likely look back on resistance to new AI technology in the same manner.
The workforce will shift and adapt to accommodate new technology and it will be retrained into new areas, with an emphasis on more person-to-person interaction rather than on administrative work, and this should make for a better society.
On balance, the application of new technology has far more benefits to society by undertaking mundane tasks and also by being able to better complete complex tasks, such as finding insights in vast tracts of data that humans are simply not able to do.
The reality is that there is an ageing population and as yet, there are not enough facilities to take care of it. The introduction of automating tasks will make a huge difference by reducing costs in the NHS and by redistributing tasks.
The care that is given from person to person can never be replaced 100 percent and is not the aim of using bots and AI. The focus is to supplement what humans can do, to make them more efficient and to help them deliver better care, with more time for doing the things that only they can do.
Although there is much confusion and fear about what it may mean to introduce bots that can think for themselves, that fear should be dispelled as technology is developed and its capacity is controlled. Once it has been proven that bots can assist humanity in its daily life, then society should be more open to embracing its potential.
Image credit: Antonello Marangi
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