Social care comprises of a complex system of public services and private entities that together provide support for those people who need help with their daily living. The range of activities involved falls into a broad spectrum: from child protection to care for the aged and dying. Specific activities may include washing, handling and administering medicines, and protecting adults or children with either physical or learning disabilities and from harm, among others.
The demand for social care is rising and so are the costs. Social care is facing challenges as far as recruitment of helpers and retention of staff are concerned. The quality of care provided is another major issue. In this context, there has been a rising interest in using robotics to provide quality social care for those that need it and reduce the pressure on the existing social care system.
Robotic Technologies of Today
Typically, robots are made up of three components namely, sensors that gather information from the environment, actuators that cause physical movement, and controllers that respond to the sensor data and allow the different parts to operate together. With the use of appropriate sensors and smart software, these machines can operate at different levels of autonomy. These robots also have AI technologies incorporated into them so that they can perform tasks that require human intelligence.
Robots, nowadays are capable of adjusting to new experiences with the help of machine learning. There are yet other robots that can share information using remote access to shared computing resources which is the essence of cloud computing.
Types of Robotic Assistance – Where Robots can be of Help
Experts suggest that robots can provide three types of assistance: physical, social and cognitive.
Physical Assistance: These robots are built to help carry and lift objects. Some robots have been developed to do tasks such as washing, walking and feeding. Prototypes of robotic toilets that can tilt or raise the user and recognize and adjust settings according to the user have been developed. Robots that assist physically have been built to promote the mobility of the users and help with their personal care.
Social Assistance: These robots generally assist in daily activities such as reminder as to when to take medication and others that detect and prevent users’ falls. They can be designed to provide social companionship and help with loneliness. Such robots can be designed to monitor wellbeing and educate kindergarten children. These robots help to reduce depression and have a positive impact on the mental health of the users. Other robots help to improve social behaviour in autistic children.
Cognitive Assistance: Robots are now being developed to help people with their cognitive tasks such as assisting to improve the memory of those afflicted with dementia. They are also a source of help for children suffering from cognitive disabilities. However, in these cases, the methods of measuring improvement make the comparison a challenging task.
Robots in Social Care
The factors that matter when robots are used in social care are its cost, the quality of the care, and the workforce involved in social care.
#1: Cost of social care
Social care costs can be cut down with the use of robots. This can aid older citizens to stay in their homes for a longer time than going into assisted living homes. Hospitalization due to falls can be prevented. Illnesses can also be kept at bay. Staffing costs can be cut down by the automation of more tasks. All of these will lead to increased productivity in the social care sector for adults. Incidences of chronic health conditions can be reduced by infusing robotics into the care of the elderly. This helps to make the older citizens more healthy and independent.
#2: Quality of social care
Studies have indicated that the quality of care provided by the social care workers to the elderly could be improved. Many geographical variations have been noted in this area. However, the consensus after many surveys points to the fact that people do not want to completely replace human social care workers with robots. They may be employed to free up time for the human social care workers so they could use this freed up time to improve the quality of their services. There are also concerns that with the advent of robots in the social care sector, the overall quality of social care is likely to see a downside. Further, robots may be incapable of filling in the emotional needs gap without human workers.
#3: Social Care Workforce
Infusing robotics in the social care sector requires that the existing workforce in this sector be trained to use the robots and work alongside with them. This is likely to cause an increase in the number of openings in this sector. Programmers and analysts are likely to find more jobs when this comes into force. However, a lot of care has to go into working the salary structures of these new types of workers given the existing scales. Otherwise, all the benefits may be outweighed by the heavy costs incurred in paying the workers in the social care sector.
Ethical, Regulatory, and Social Challenges
Other challenges include issues such as autonomy, privacy, and security among others. There is apprehension as to whether users may become dependent on the robots and lose their ability to do jobs independently, and whether children will be informed enough to give consent to the robots. Robots that are able to access the Internet and collect large amounts of data may intrude into the privacy of the care-seekers. As robots can also be hacked, it raises questions about the security issues that can come up.
As of now, public attitudes about the use of robotics in the social care industry are mixed. However, experts opine that the design of robots is crucial as this will eventually decide the degree of acceptance of the robot among the care-seekers and their effectiveness in performance. At this stage, it is interesting to note that many robots that are specifically developed for social care are still in the concept stage. Only a careful design of the robots can decide whether they will be accepted in the social care sector to work alongside humans or replace them altogether.