By Mark McLaughlin
As the population ages, more and more people are finding that they or their older loved ones need help if they are to remain in their homes – instead of going into a “home.” There are many types of professional caregivers, and both visiting and live-in helpers who can help meet the needs of those who have difficulty fending for or caring for themselves. While people are irreplaceable, there are new machines – robots – that can do many of the simpler, menial, basic and everyday tasks that until recently could only be done by a human being. These robots will not replace people, but as they free up people for more vital tasks, they are fast becoming the future of in-home care.
What do you mean by “robots?” Why would I want any robots in my home?
Many people already have robots in their lives and may not even realize it. That coffee pot that automatically starts brewing in the morning when its timer goes off is actually a robot, if a rather simple one. There are other, more advanced, yet still fairly uncomplicated robots in use in many homes. These include a variety of smart vacuum cleaners, like the iRobot’s Roomba, or the same company’s Scooba, (which not only vacuums, but also washes floors). Robots perform similar tasks outside, like the Friendly Robotic’s Robomow – which took the robotic vacuum cleaner idea outside to mow lawns, or the Aquabot that cleans pools. These are all robots, and are all designed with one goal in mind: to make life easier by doing the menial tasks that people do not want to do, do not have time to do or are no longer able to do.
Okay, these might help with the house and yard work, but what kind of robots are used in health care?
Many doctors use robots during surgery to perform tasks that are too delicate to trust to human hands. Hospitals use robots to monitor vital signs, administer drugs, to deliver specimens to laboratories or to move supplies between departments and offices or to the nurses’ station or patient’s bedside. There are robots that can provide much of the same services for patients in need of help at home.
Robots are just machines though, aren’t they? They can only do what they are told to do. They can’t respond to the changing needs of patients, can they?
While robots, in the past, had the ability to perform basic tasks, they were not able to respond to human feelings and emotions – making their value limited for assisting people with disabilities. This has begun to change! A joint effort by IBM and Rice University, built on work originally done in Japan by SoftBank Robotics, has developed a robot that can detect and respond to human emotions via vocal cues and facial expressions. These machines have the ability to interact with people, monitor their vital signs (e.g., heart and breathing rates), and respond to health-related questions.
Many people rely on visiting nurses, therapists or family members to motivate them, help them or do everyday things for them. Surely, robots can’t do that, can they?
A complementary effort is underway at the University of Southern California where robots are being developed to help seniors help themselves. They cite studies that have determined that many people need help with motivation to do basic tasks. The intent of this generation of robots, known as socially assistive robotics and named Spritebot, is to help people through social, not physical, interaction. This “coaching” can range from encouraging physical activity to enhance socialization with family and friends. Future plans for Spritebot include helping seniors by encouraging them to form healthy habits such as walking more. Researchers point out that while much of the current effort is being driven by a shortage of human companions for the elderly, robots do offer certain advantages, including being infinitely patient and having no biases.
No robot, no matter how advanced, will ever do for a patient what other people can do for them, right? They aren’t trying to replace people with machines for in-home health care, are they?
Robots can do a lot of things that people can do, but not everything. While these advances can only serve to benefit people – particularly those with physical, emotional, or cognitive challenges – they will never be able to match the humanity of another human being. According to Jody Sherman (President and CEO of AAA T.L.C. Health Care – a Private Duty Home Care Agency), although robots may assist in the care of people, it is people, and only people, who are able to bring the “human touch” to care giving. We may reach the day when much of the required assistance is handled by robots, but we will always need and benefit from the warmth and touch of another person.