Robot Nurses
August 20, 2013

Robot Nurses

We are an aging society, there is no question. And it isn’t just the US, the global population is aging. CNN’s Heather Kelly reports that 16 percent of the global population will be elderly by 2050 — that equals 1.5 BILLION people over the age of 65, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

If you have ever had an elderly family member in assisted living care, it isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t cheap. The physical, emotion and mental health of the senior population will be suffering because of a projected lack of trained professionals willing to take on the job.

“We have to find more resources and have to get new ways of delivering those resources and delivering the quality of care,” says Antonio Espingardeiro, an expert in robotics and automation at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, and a member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

Can you guess from his credentials what the answer is going to be?  That’s right, robot elder-care.

Espingardeiro says robots have the potential to meet many of the needs of an aging population. This led him to develop a model of elder-care robot, P37 S65, which can monitor senior patients and communicate with doctors while providing basic care and companionship.

Okay, let me stop here for a moment. Companionship? I’ve seen robots dance, and robots drive cars, but holding a conversation hasn’t really been something I’ve seen, and certainly not playing games or reading books.

But, wait!  It seems they thought of that. “With a few conversational skills, robots might also keep an aging person’s mind sharp by engaging them in chit-chat and challenging them with questions or games, while even tracking their progress or loss of memory over time.” Espingardeiro envisions robots using sensors and cameras to supervise the elderly. The robots will also make sure they take meds on time or protect them from falling.

Smart-home technology already does some of this, using sensor to track patterns of behavior and automatically detect when something is amiss. In a smart-home, a stove left on too long or an elderly person deviating from their normal pattern could trigger an alert for caregivers. Espingardeiro sees robots going a step farther than smart homes by helping people suffering from dementia by reminding them about daily tasks and retaining important information – phone numbers, or types of medication – that the senior might forget.

Let’s add one more layer of weird. Skype with movement. The robots could have computer screens that would allow the seniors to visit with their doctors or loved one. The doctor could also control the robot enough to do simple tasks, like taking vital signs.

There are already experiments with robots and elder care happening in Japanese nursing homes. The Palro is a little over a foot high with two arms, two legs and a head. Palro has simple conversations and plays games. The Palro therapy bot, which has been around for about 10 years, looks like a harp seal that responds to petting with body and eye movements. The robot seals are alternative to therapy animals.

Japan has allocated $24 million of its 2013 budget into researching robot elder care, even though Espingardeiro says fully robotic care is at least 25 years away. If you are reading this, my darling daughter, the answer is NO!  No robot care for Mom.

The researchers say there are many ethical issues that need to be resolved, including the potentially troubling implications of a patient developing an emotional connection to a robot.

“This is a very vulnerable group, very frail,” said Espingardeiro. “What happens if they get attached to these machines?”

Once again, let me say DUH!  You are talking about taking away the human element from elderly people. Even the animal element, if the Palro therapy bot is in use. No face to face contact with doctors, nurses, or even family because they can all “dial in.”  I think a bigger concern would be if these elderly people DIDN’T become attached to their robot caregivers.

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