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Social Innovation

Meet the Care Bots

With healthcare resources under increasing strain, care bots are coming to our rescue. Carefully designed to meet the needs of the old, young and vulnerable in our society, they are set to have a big impact.

Seeing robots working on assembly lines and hearing automated voices is becoming a common occurrence in our daily life.

The future looks bright for our mechanical friends, who one day may guide you around a busy airport or through a crowded shopping mall.

But did you know that robots are also being introduced into social settings too? From providing daily care for patients in need to interacting with children with learning difficulties, robots are stepping up to tackle some of the present and future healthcare challenges facing society today.

With people living longer, we are facing a global care crisis for our ageing populations. There are not enough doctors or nurses available to cope with the ever-increasing demand for social care. For example, in Japan, a country well-known for its ageing population, it is estimated that a million new nurses will be needed by 2025 to meet the level of care required.

The rollout of care bots has the potential to change how we care for the elderly. With care bots capable of reminding people to take their medication; of remotely monitoring their movements in case anything goes amiss; and of calling for help when needed, this is allowing elderly people to stay in the comfort of their own home and retain their independence for longer. However, care bots will do more than look after the physical wellbeing of the elderly – they will also support mental wellbeing by offering companionship. With Age UK reporting that 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with family or friends for a month, social robots can help to alleviate loneliness by providing company.

Care bots are also allowing people with debilitating physical disabilities to reclaim a sense of normality, even in tasks which may seem mundane to the rest of us. The Obi robot, for example, helps people with disabilities to feed themselves – a small act but one where the user may feel more dignified, preferring to be fed by a robot, rather than another person. Robots are also being developed to alleviate pressure, quite literally, on care workers. Inventions such as Robear, a large robotic bear, are supporting carers and reducing the physical strain of their work by helping to lift patients and move them around.

The bounds of care bot abilities are now expanding even further. A few robots have been designed to help children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, who find it difficult to read emotions and interpret behaviour. This led researchers at the University of Hertfordshire to develop the first humanoid robot designed specifically to help children with autism, by helping them to socialise and communicate. Programmed to respond to touch via skin sensors, Kaspar helps children to understand which tactile behaviours are socially acceptable and which are more inappropriate. Kaspar will enter a two year clinical trial by the NHS this year, which will involve 40 children and aims to distinguish the difference between those who interact with Kaspar and a therapist, and those who only see a therapist.

Whilst they will provide part of the solution to meet the increasing costs of care, the impact of care bots will be greater than just saving money. They look set to play not only a vital role in providing social care, but will make a genuine and meaningful impact on people’s lives by giving them a level of independence which may otherwise have been.

These examples show that the capabilities of care bots are developing rapidly, and we predict that it will be human acceptance, rather than technological limitation, that will govern their rate of adoption. However, once people have experienced the benefits that care bots can bring, it won't be long before they become a common feature in our homes.