The idea of robots being a part of our everyday lives – and in some cases, wreaking havoc – is nothing new. Hollywood has long been fascinated with the idea of robot assistants, even in the realm of healthcare. Just a few years ago, Disney released the film “Big Hero 6,” in which one of the main characters is Baymax, a “personal healthcare companion” designed to provide ongoing care and support for humans.
With the rapid development of artificial intelligence, and the expansion of robotics into other fields, it only makes sense that robots will be a part of the future of healthcare. Of course, this begs the question of whether we can expect to see machines like Baymax visiting patient homes in the future, or will robots in home health look very different?
Robots as Friends, Companions and Caregivers
Recently, Amazon made headlines when it was leaked that the company is working on a prototype of a new device that’s believed to be a type of robot. Reportedly called the “Vesta,” after the Roman goddess of hearth and home, the device has been described as being similar to the company’s Alexa digital assistant. The difference being, of course, that Vesta can move around the home, following you and responding to various commands.
There hasn’t been any official confirmation of Vesta – and it’s not uncommon for Amazon to kill projects before they reach market – but the very fact that the company is working on a robot device indicates that the reality of robots as home assistants isn’t too far-fetched. That’s especially true considering some of the advances taking place overseas, where robots and robot-like devices are already being put to use in assisted living and nursing facilities.
In Germany, for example, residents in some nursing homes use the Care-o-Bot, a four-foot tall robot butler of sorts. The Care-o-Bots, which are specifically programmed to behave like refined gentlemen, are able to fetch items for residents and play games to keep them entertained and sharp. The robot is capable of indicating that it understands the commands it’s been given and reflecting emotions, and will make simple gestures to communicate with patients.
In Japan, several robot options are designed for elderly individuals who live alone, or who just need a little extra help with daily activities. Honda’s Asimo robot, famous for falling down a flight of stairs during its test phase, has been redesigned to not only be able to traverse stairs, but also perform simple tasks like bringing food and drink and using sign language. Other Japanese devices are able to remind patients to take their medication, track vital signs and answer phone calls.
These are just a few of the devices already in use in this area, but some experts note that in order for robots to be truly useful, they need to do more than just complete simple tasks. Researchers are looking at ways that robots can become true companions to seniors, using machine learning to learn their preferences and personalities, so they can behave accordingly. There is already evidence that adults can build attachments to their robot companions, and that having a robot around has a positive effect on symptoms of depression, but the question remains: Will home health workers be replaced by robots?
The Downside to Robotic Care
Developers are going to great lengths to incorporate emotion into robots in an attempt to make interacting with them as human-like as possible. While this may sound good in theory, especially for a senior who is facing isolation, there is some concern about the effects of these “relationships.”
Several researchers have noted that replacing human caregivers with robots is the wrong way to go.
Humans need human contact and interaction, and by replacing people with machines, there is potential for increased isolation, and significant emotional and psychosocial effects. Not to mention, there is – at least at this point – no adequate substitute for human intuition and the ability for humans to “read” another person. When a home health provider builds a relationship with a patient, that relationships goes well beyond the information stored in the home health software and AI recommendations. A human can more easily observe signs of an issue that a robot can’t, or that a robot might misinterpret, ensuring that the patient remains healthy and gets the care he or she needs.
At the end of the day, then, for now the possibility of robots in home health is inching toward reality, but it remains unlikely that they will ever completely replace humans as caregivers. Not only will there always be limitations to the technology, we can’t overlook the fact that not all seniors will be comfortable with robots in their homes providing care and services. They might be helpful for simple tasks, but when it comes to companionship and quality healthcare, humans will always be the best choice.
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