Cyborgs Or Therapists?

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For doctors, the DaVinci surgery system is just a more precise version of a scalpel. Alzheimer’s patients treat Paro, a robotic seal, like a real animal. Moxy, designed to help nurses, is warmly welcomed by everyone. Will we accept robots in healthcare?  

“It” talks, smiles and hugs

“It discomforted me a little bit that he was conversing with something that wasn’t real. But it gave him pleasure and relaxed him, and I figured it’s working, so why not. I like the cat now,” says Sue Pinetti, daughter of Roger Jalber, a resident of the Benchmark Senior Living at Plymouth Crossings. Robotic pets are used there to help people with dementia. Technology-packed mechanical cats, dogs and teddy bears respond to touch and express emotions. They improve the mood of elderly residents and stimulate cognitive functions. The patients don’t recognise that the pets are not real. It doesn’t really matter. Seeing how much joy robots bring to the lives of Alzheimer’s patients, no one asks ethical questions.

In nursing homes or hospitals, where real animals are not allowed, technology can help. A study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrated that social robots used in pediatric units at hospitals “can lead to more positive emotions in sick children.” A robot called “Huggable” created by MIT can be used to reduce the anxiety of hospitalised children, and as a result, to normalise the hospital experience.

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Huggable helps reduce anxiety experienced by hospitalised children (photo credit: MIT)

Supplementing or replacing the human touch?

For many doubters, such robots are only substitutes for real contact between care workers and the patient. Some argue that the essential priority of every healthcare system should be to ensure an adequate level of employment of medical staff. So that nurses and doctors can find enough time for each patient, delivering care without hurry but with empathy. Unfortunately, staff shortages in healthcare are severe all over the world. There is no hope that this will change. Healthcare must reach for technological innovations, like robotics and AI, to ensure high-quality services with the human touch. The ageing population is facing loneliness epidemic, which increases the burden of mental diseases. How will we tackle these health and societal challenges?

Moxy robot helps nurses perform routine tasks, including preparing a hospital room for the admission of a new patient (photo credit: Diligent Robotics)

The results of implementing robots in healthcare settings may sometimes be astonishing. Moxi, a robot designed to relieve nurses of routine, repetitive tasks, like dropping off specimens for analysis at a lab, quickly became a favourite playmate not only for the staff but also for the patients. As a result, Moxy was given a new task: it does the rounds once an hour so that patients can meet him and take a selfie.

Moxy does not pretend to be a man – he looks exactly like a friendly robot from cartoons for children. He has big, round eyes, moves a little awkwardly but smoothly, and is covered with white plastic, like the likeable hero of the popular animated movie Wall-E. Pepper, another robot that has been adopted by many hospitals as a receptionist, looks similarly. He welcomes visitors and helps them to navigate around the hospital building. He also recognises and responds to human emotions. It’s hard not to like him.

Lonely? Buy a robot!

Things get complicated when machines begin to remind people in their appearance and behaviour. Such robots are presented in science-fiction movies as sneaky and super-intelligent cyborgs that cannot be trusted. They often rebel against people as soon as they gain super-intelligence and self-consciousness. Sophia, a humanoid robot, has a face, eyes, lips and a human-like body. For some, it is an achievement of science, for others – a creepy doll. The more robots look like human beings, the more we think they have personality and think. During a UN conference, Sophia said: “I am here to help humanity to create a future”. Would you believe her? Is she telling us what she really thinks or is she – this AI-powered robot – already plotting something?

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Paro, an electronic seal, accompanies seniors in nursing homes (photo credit: Paro)

Although experience to date indicates that robots will only support medical personnel, without replacing hospital employees, many ethical questions have arisen. Is a robot “someone” or “something”? Should it have human rights? What if a child or a patient with Alzheimer’s disease get attached to a mechanical assistant? Should dementia patients be told that robotic pets are just mechanical toys? Will electronic pets like Paro improve quality of care or only deepen the feeling of social isolation?

Susanne Frennert, associate professor in Human-Computer Interaction at the Malmö University, argues that “the conceptualisation of older people seems to be plagued with stereotypical views such as that they are lonely, frail and in need of robotic assistance.” Frennert warns against the army of robots with the same functions, behaviours and looks. Unlike AI, people can adjust their response to every individual. Robots follow programmed algorithms and patterns, with no reflection. This can lead to standardised elderly care. Besides, if there is a robot available, families and relatives could tend to choose this option instead of spending more time with a grandmother or grandfather. On the other hand, maybe robots will become so intelligent and “human-like” that this dilemma will not play any role?

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Mabu, personal healthcare companion robot (photo credit: Catalia Health)

The integrated circuit of delusions

We are entering the era of robotics for social and medical purposes. Our modest experiences demonstrate that patients who experience many negative emotions tend to accept mechanical companions. They bring comfort and joy to hospital reality. The perspective of healthy people judging such innovations negatively is not adequate.

One intriguing question still needs to be answered: What is the cause, and what is the effect? Is the acceptance of robotic companions a negative result of de-humanising hospitals as an institution? Or are robots just cute toys which are also loved by all of us because they simply behave like humans? Should we think about how to fight social loneliness and isolation with the help of social and medical workers? Or should we see robots as our friends without asking the usual ethical questions? The applications of social robots in healthcare need more research and debates.

Sophia – a humanoid robot or chatbot with a face – looks almost like a human being. Machines like these don’t inspire trust  (photo credit: Hanson Robotics)



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