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How humane is the UK’s plan to acquaint robot assembly in care homes?

Some UK care homes are to deploy robots in an attack to allay bareness and boost mental health. The wheeled machines will “initiate abecedarian conversations, play residents’ admired music, teach them languages, and offer applied help, including anesthetic reminders.” They are being alien after an all-embracing trial found they bargain all-overs and loneliness.

These robots can hold basic conversations and be programmed to people’s interests. This is positive, but they are not a viable another to human interaction. It’s a sad state of diplomacy when robots are presented as solutions to human loneliness. Though advised as a way to fill in for carers in a “stretched social care system” rather than as a abiding solution, the use of robots is a glace slope in removing the aged and infirm still added from the nerves and fibers of human interaction.

Robot assembly have been trialled in the UK and Japan, from dogs that sit to assimilation to young women greeting abandoned businessmen after a long day at work. They absolutely serve a action in reminding people what it is to have companionship, allowance with crude social alternation and accouterment cues to what it is to be human.

But robots cannot accommodate the altruism and benevolence that should be at the core of a caring system. And they might even access bareness in the long term by abbreviation the actual acquaintance people have with humans, and by accretion a sense of disconnect.

While there have been studies assuming automatic pets can reduce loneliness, such analysis is about based on a adverse with no alternation at all, rather than a allegory of human and automatic interaction.

The humanoid robot, ‘Pepper’, that is to be alien to care homes. Sascha Steinback/EPA-EFE

It’s also important to factor in the role of novelty, which is often missing in care home environments. In 2007, a Japanese nursing home alien Ifbot, a citizen robot that provided affecting companionship, sang songs and gave trivia quizzes to aged residents. The administrator of the adroitness appear that association were absorbed for about a month before they lost interest, preferring “stuffed animals” to the “communication robot”.

Tactile connection

The another for blimp animals is, I think, important, because it also connects to the acoustic acquaintance of loneliness. Cuddly toys can be hugged and even briefly moulded by the shape and temperature of the human body. Robots cannot. There is a limit to the sense of affiliation and embodied abundance that can come from automatic caregivers, or pets.

This is not only because robots show bereft cultural awareness, and that their gestures might sometimes seem a little, well, mechanical. It’s because robots do not have flesh and blood, or even the acquiescence of a blimp toy.

Consider the arguable abstracts conducted by Harry Harlow in the 1950s that showed rhesus monkeys always adopted concrete abundance to a automated caregiver, even if the latter had milk. Similarly, robots lack the warmth of a human or animal companion. They don’t acknowledge allegedly to the movement of their companions, or adapt the heartbeats of their owners through the simple power of touch.

Loneliness is a concrete adversity as well as a mental one. Accompaniment can advance health and access wellbeing, but only when it is the right kind.

Stroking a dog can be abatement for the person as well as the animal. Walking a dog also gets people out of the house where that is possible, and encourages social interaction.

As the owner of a young labrador, I am not always a fan of early rising. But I can see the absolute affecting impact a pet has had on my young son, in adverse to many hours of abstruse absorption. An Xbox can’t curl up on your bed in the middle of the night to keep you warm.

And the abominable Labrador stink is like aroma to my son, who claims it makes him feel less lonely. So it’s smell, as well as touch, that is circuitous bareness – along with all the senses.


I am not a technophobe. In the Zoom world of COVID-19, abstruse solutions have a analytical role in making people feel included, seen and listened to. In time, it may be that some of the break furnishings of technology, including the glitchy movements, whirring sounds and affected body accent will advance and become more naturalized. Similarly, robot assembly may well in time become more lifelike. Who will bethink the early, clunky days of Furreal pets?

But care robots are alms a band-aid that should not be needed. There is no reason for care home association to be so devoid of human accompaniment (or animal support) that robot accompany are the answer.

There is commodity abortive about the basement in which care is delivered, if robots are an economically motivated solution. Indeed, the addition of robots into affecting care de-skills the circuitous work of caring, while commercializing and privatizing responses to aged loneliness.

It is often presented as “natural” or assured that aged and infirm people live in homes, with other aged and infirm people, shuttered away from the rest of the world. Care homes are an architectural way of concealing those that are least economically productive. There may be good homes, filled with happy residents, but there are many belief of people being abandoned and neglected, abnormally during a pandemic.

How we care for the aged and the infirm is a cultural and political choice. Historically, aged and infirm people were part of the social fabric and continued families. With a globally aging population, many countries are revisiting how best to restructure care homes in ways that reflect demographic, bread-and-butter and cultural needs.

Care home schemes in the Netherlands, house acceptance with aged people and is accepted with both. With a little imagination, care homes can be radically rethought.

New technologies have a role to play in society, just as they always have had in history. But they shouldn’t be used to paper over the gaps left by a abandonment of social care and a breakdown in what “community” means in the 21st century. That’s inhuman.The Conversation

Published September 20, 2020 — 17:00 UTC

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