Putting robots in their place

December 3, 2014

While I believe there is a role for assistive technologies with the people we care for, we owe it to them to explore all the options before we resort to robots as personal companions, writes Sandra Hills.

 

During a recent and much anticipated holiday to Japan and South Korea, in between the gardening and cultural highlights, I made some time to keep in touch with what was happening in the news. It’s something I like to do when I’m away as, when removed from the day-to-day demands of work, I enjoy having the opportunity to reflect and take stock. Thankfully, on this trip, I came across a Japanese newspaper translated into English!

As expected, there was significant coverage of some of the social, financial and health issues affecting older people. The ageing population in Japan has been well documented; in fact they are ahead of the pack when it comes to an ageing society. Japan is now ageing faster than any other country, with approximately 25 per cent of the population aged over 65. That’s about 31.9 million people. We don’t expect to see this kind of percentage figure in Australia until 2101, but we are acutely aware that we too, are an ageing population.

 

With this in mind, one article caught my eye which discussed the role of robots in the provision of aged care support. As countries such as Japan become more and more pushed for resources to keep up with the ever increasing demand for aged care, it is only natural that they look to innovations to provide the most effective and efficient solutions.

 

The use of robots to provide assistance with domestic chores, along with medical diagnosis and treatment, is not new to most of us. Recently, however, there has been a shifting focus in exploring the role of robots as social companions and as a solution to emerging issues associated with social isolation.

 

I was first introduced to this idea at the 2014 LASA Tristate Conference, when I met Paro, the therapeutic seal robot. Developed in Japan, Paro has five different sensors which enable it to engage with its owner. It has been found to have significant benefits for those it interacts with, including improvements in mood and stress management, while increasing engagement between the older person and their caregiver.

 

On further exploration, I found that robots have been used as social companions to older people in Japan since the beginning of this century and that this has been attributed to a shortage of skilled Japanese workers, associated with strict immigration regulations, and the need for increased efficiency. Many people even argue that robots can provide a level of high quality care, with minimal error, that can simply not be achieved by humans.

 

This made me wonder: what is the price we pay for this desire for efficiency? What is the impact to an older person’s sense of self, confidence, and spirit?

 

In 2012, Benetas, as a member of Anglicare Australia, commissioned a research report by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Ames. The research report entitled Finding the Way, investigated what a ‘Theology of Ageing’ might look like in the context of people’s lives. It explored issues around spirituality for older people and what constitutes a ‘positive’ experience in ageing.

 

Three strong messages can be drawn from Dr Ames’ report:

  • ageing people, including those individuals who have been diagnosed with dementia, do not lose personhood;

  • the worth of human beings is not just as a means to some end, but is unconditional and not measureable;

  • ageing is a deeply counter-cultural phenomenon that has much to offer society.

Believing in the individual worth and uniqueness of each individual is something I feel strongly about. On reflection, this is why I was most challenged when I came across the article on the use of robots, no matter how cute or appealing they may seem. I believe that all older people regardless of their past, family support or capacity, have the right to human contact.

 

I accept the need to provide the best services possible to the older people in our community; in fact I see this as our core responsibility. I also understand the role technology and associated innovations have to play in achieving high level care and outcomes. Benetas’ most recent Strategic Plan: Towards 2019 explicitly outlines the very important role technology has to play as an enabler in helping us to achieve our vision for the coming years, and we have invested heavily in this area. I also appreciate that a significant amount of work needs to be done to address issues associated with social isolation in our community, and that this is an area that needs more investment, rather than less.

 

In fact, I also believe there is a role for assistive technologies with the people we work with at Benetas. One of our clients is about to trial using a robot as a companion and we are preparing to trial a tablet-based application that will see an avatar, in the form of a talking, interactive personal assistant, support clients with day-to-day activities. Different things work for different people.

 

I strongly believe, however, that we need to explore and exhaust all of the options available to us, including upskilling and re-training staff and supporting innovative and perhaps unconventional social inclusion programs, before we resort to introducing robots as personal companions to older people across the board.

To me, the use of robots will always be the last choice. That’s not to say it’s a bad one, or that some people won’t prefer it, or that it can’t work. But I think we owe it to the older people in our community, and older people of the future, to offer that choice.

 

Sandra Hills is the chief executive officer of Benetas.

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