What role will robots play in care homes?

robot-care-homeIt may seem somewhat peculiar to deploy robots in a profession as inherently human as healthcare, but that is nonetheless what has been happening recently, with experiments underway from Britain to New Zealand.

Interestingly, these studies found that the robots were both welcomed by their patient and rather useful.  For instance they’d provide valuable support to the patient to ensure medication was taken, but also provide a degree of comradeship that is perhaps rather less expected.

Our relationship with robots

A recent study found that senior citizens are quite happy to accept robots as helpers, but are much more concerned about ceding too much control to them.

Key to this relationship was the mental model that the senior citizens had formed about robots.  In other words, if they went into the relationship thinking positively, or negatively, about robots, then that had a big impact on how the relationship went.

“When interfaces are designed to be almost human-like in their autonomy, seniors may react to them with fear, skepticism and other negative emotions,” the researchers say. “But, with those considerations in mind, there are actually several areas where older people would accept robot help.”

The patients revealed that they usually found the robots extremely useful in both a physical, informational and interactional sense.  They were particularly keen on the robots performing helpful tasks, with older patients keen on robots providing entertainment and information.

Knowing the boundaries

The main concern for the seniors was when the robots were perceived as autonomous and acting of their own volition.  In other words, when the robots weren’t behaving under the instruction of the seniors, that was a major turn-off.

“It is clear senior citizens want robots to play passive and non-confrontational roles,” the authors say. “Seniors do not mind having robots as companions, but they worry about the potential loss of control over social order to robots.”

Much of this reflects the perception robots have in the media, with this perception influencing the mental models the seniors have of the robots, even though most have never used a robot before.

As the population of much of the western world ages, it seems inevitable that automated carers will be a key part of caring for this population.  It’s crucial, therefore, to gain a greater understanding of how older people react to robot support.

“Even with concerns about control, we consistently heard that robots could be very useful to seniors,” the authors say. “As we age, our physical and interactional needs change. Robots in that human-command and robot-servient role have the potential to help seniors fill several of those needs.”

The importance of context

Of course, a key takeaway from the study is that perception is largely a result of context, especially in the early stages of the industry where few people have actual experience to draw upon.

It will be interesting to see follow-up studies that explore how these perceptions change as people begin to get first hand experience of living alongside a robot, and whether this experience begins to over-ride third party information, such as that appearing in the press.

The study does provide a good start point however and gives the industry valuable insight into the level of comfort older adults have with robots, and what kind of roles they would be happy for them to perform.

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