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Rise of the robots in social care - which side of the fence do you sit?

Published on 16th November 2017

With two of the world’s most respected minds, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, wading into the debate about Artificial Intelligence (AI), it’s time to decide which side of the fence you sit when it comes to AI being used to ease pressures on the social care workforce. Let's explore the advantages and disadvantages, do robots have a part to play in the future of social care? Or would investments in AI be better spent on training the current social care workforce?

Bill Gates, Co-Founder of Microsoft hailed the rise of the robots and said that their benefits will far outweigh their negatives. He believes AI will improve efficiency in a range of industries:

“We are in a world of shortage, but these advances will help us take on all of the top problems. We need to solve infectious diseases...we need to help healthcare workers do their jobs.”

Whereas Stephen Hawking has issued a warning, AI could be the ‘worst event in the history of our civilisation.’ Hawking warned against the rise of powerful, conscious machines, believing that AI needs to be firmly controlled. Without human intervention, ‘computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it.’

To help you decide whether you think AI can be used to improve social care below are a few examples of how robots are being used in the UK and further afield to support care workers in their roles.

Southend on Sea Borough Council’s newest recruit

In October 2018, Pepper the Robot was announced as the newest recruit for Southend-on-sea borough council. An employee is never normally announced with their weight and height statistics but Pepper was announced to the world as a 120cm, 28kg humanoid robot!

The council is keen to stress that they are very much aware of the implications around having a ‘robotic’ member of the workforce. Sharon Houlden, Director of Adult Social Care said:

“We’re not advocating that he would take the place of any commissioned service we provide. We have so much feedback from staff - and it is the national debate around social care - that people cannot do what they came into the profession to do. For me this is largely where Pepper will come in; he’ll be able to do things that will free us up to do more of the direct work - possibly in ways we can’t even visualise yet.”

Amazon Alexa

Hampshire County Council are the first council to trial and invest in Amazon Echo to support 50 elderly home-care service users within the county. Alexa can remind service-users to take their medication and inform them about when their Carer is next due to visit.

Hampshire County Council and their technology partner aim to develop how Alexa is used over the coming year. Developments in how the Alexa can be used includes linking the Amazon device to movement sensors in the house which detects when service-users enter their kitchen and then provide a prompt to take a drink.

Companion robots in Japan

In Japan the evolution of technology is seen as essential as a quarter of the country’s population is over the age of 65 and the working population is shrinking at a rate of 1 per cent a year.

There are three robots that are now commonplace in Japan’s nursing homes:

  • Robear, a robot who looks like a bear and can lift a person off their bed and into a chair
  • Chapit, a cuddly robot who looks like a mouse and sits at a person’s bedside and engages in basic conversation
  • Palro, a small humanoid that can lead a room full of elderly people in a game or basic exercises

With many of Japan’s younger generation choosing not to have children, the answer to ‘grandchildren’ again seems to lie in robotics. ‘Pepper Robot’ the same robot purchased by Southend Council is being purchased on payment plans by Japan’s ‘Grandparent Generation’ as a substitute for a grandchild.

Now it’s time to ask yourself, do you align yourself with Bill Gates or Stephen Hawking’s views regarding AI? Would you object to having a cuddly robot companion? Or are the implications of AI far greater than this, will machines come to replace and outsmart humans?

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