Service users could be “positively encouraged” to eat or drink by the robot
In future, robots could be helping older people to stay independent, reducing care needs, finds Mithran Samuel
While few doubt that telecare has a key role to play in helping social care meet the challenges of an ageing population, there is a certain squeamishness around the idea that this should involve robots.
For social care staff, “robot carers” may raise the spectre of mass redundancy; for current and potential service users, they may evoke a future starved of human contact in which they will cede control of their lives to a humanoid.
However, a European-wide research project is seeking to prove these stereotypes wrong and show that a future with robots could be a positive thing for social care. The three-year Mobiserv project aims to develop a telecare system to help older people live independently and stay healthy with a robot at its heart.
The robot’s role would be to help older people carry out daily activities, stay healthy and communicate with others, notably family, friends and care professionals. It would be able to move around the user’s home, as instructed by the user, and communicate with them through speech recognition technology. It should also enable the user to communicate with family and professionals through video conferencing; and receive information on the user’s health and well-being through cameras and sensors embedded in their clothing. This information would be conveyed to the older person or to professionals.
The project, funded by a €2.7m (£2.3m) European Union grant, brings together nine organisations from seven countries and a range of professional disciplines: robotics, academia, hi-tech home and clothing design and the care sector.
The single British partner is the University of the West of England (UWE). Its multi-disciplinary team has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the finished product is driven by the needs of older people, rather than technology.
It brings together two health and social care academics – Simon Evans and Tina Fear – robotics expert Sanja Dogramadzi and Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly, who specialises in human-computer interaction.
After the project’s launch in December 2009, the team conducted field work with older people living in residential care or in the community in Bristol, as well as care staff, managers and relatives, to look at what they would want from a system such as Mobiserv. A similar process has been undertaken in the Netherlands, which provides two of the other partners, care provider the St Anna Zorggroep and Smart Homes, a home design company.
Caleb-Solly says ensuring that the technological partners do not race ahead of the wishes and needs of older people has been a key role for her and the UWE team.
“When you’re working with technology developers the first thing they want us to do is build stuff and we say ‘hold on, hold on, this is what people are telling us’.”
One way of communicating potential users’ needs to developers has been through personas embodying different user types.
These include Brenda, an older person living independently who suffers from diabetes, poor eyesight, mobility problems, shortness of breath from exertion and forgetfulness.
It has been suggested that Brenda could benefit from a wide range of functions: being reminded to eat or drink, or being “persuasively encouraged” to do so by the robot; being able to call someone in an emergency; communicating with friends, relatives or health professionals; being reminded to take medication or to keep diary appointments; or checking her health.
Posters have been made of the personas that have been pinned up on the walls of the companies doing the development, such as robotics firm Robosoft.
The discussions with older people, relatives and care staff have thrown up a number of issues, notably a suspicion of technology among some older people and a negative perception of robots – a consequence of popular manifestations of robots.
“It’s about control – about the robot not controlling or monitoring you,” says Caleb-Solly. “In science fiction, it’s usually the robot that has the upper hand.”
Evans says: “The word robot is quite unappealing. We need to think about what we call it.”
Appearance is also an issue. “At the moment, the prototype has painted eyes and some people find that disturbing,” says Caleb-Solly. “After three years we may have a completely different looking robot.”
Changes have already been made on the basis of what older people have said.
“We had thought about a shopping list function that Robosoft had developed but most people didn’t think that was necessary,” she adds. “It’s about identifying what really needs to be there.”
She says care staff have not viewed the robot as a threat but seen the potential for it to take on routine tasks, giving staff more time to spend with clients. “I want it to enhance human contact, not replace it,” Caleb-Solly says. “The acceptance of this technology by people rests on that being the case.”
As envisaged, Mobiserv would be part of a wider system of health and social care services, with professionals able to communicate with users through the robot, which would also alert staff to changes in users’ health and well-being.
The nature of the surrounding social care system will determine who pays for the robot – the state or the individual. Caleb-Solly adds: “It will be interesting to see that. Will you save up for your robot? Do you buy it in your fifties and let it grow old with you.”
Mobiserv is not the first or only project to apply robotics to health and social care, and the EU is funding a number of similar projects.
“There’s been a realisation that there’s potential to develop this technology and all of these bits of early research have been about understanding the pragmatics,” says Caleb-Solly. “How do you deal with carpet folds; what happens when people lock the door?”
Evans estimates that it will be at least another 10 years before it could become operational. “There are safety issues to consider and simple things like the battery life and how often it will have to be recharged,” says Caleb-Solly. “We are still a long way away.”
REACTIONS TO THE ROBOT
The University of the West of England has gauged the reactions of older people and their carers to the idea of having a robot help them live at home, and to the latest prototype.
One older disabled woman interviewed described the prototype robot as “lovely”, saying she wouldn’t want to change anything about his appearance or want it to look like a pet or dog.
Her daughter described it as “very user-friendly” and “approachable”, and was impressed with the facility for the robot to contact medical professionals if there are problems with the user’s health. But she was less pleased that users had to use one-word answers to tell the robot about any health problems: “Most people would say, ‘I’ve got a headache’, or ‘my arm hurts’, not ‘head, arm, neck’.”
Their feedback, along with that of other older people, carers and care staff from the UK and the Netherlands, have informed the development of the system.
● For a video of the robot prototype working with a user go to www.communitycare.co.uk/robot
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This article is published in the 20 January 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “I robot, I care”