Robot Caregivers

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News April 2013

Robots can function as caregivers. But should they?

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It seems almost impossible to keep up with never-ending advancements in technologies such as robotics and those in the medical field. But, that quick progress leads to some serious questions, especially when it comes to caregiving for people with spinal-cord injuries (SCI).

Among the latest advancements of interest to the SCI community are robots that make it possible to live more independently.

One such device is RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance), a robotic nurse that can lift and transfer a person from a bed to a wheelchair.

Another one is StrongArm, an electric wheelchair with a strong robotic arm attached to the frame. It can help do the lifting and transferring a personal attendant might do for someone with SCI.

Devices such as RIBA, the Robot for Interactive Body Assistance, raise ethical questions about caregiving.

Any number of devices can help people with memory loss and cognitive impairments keep appointments and remember to take medications. A robot called Bandit even helps children with autism develop social skills.

Clearly the question as to whether or not a robot can function as a caregiver is quickly being answered with a “yes.” The question that remains is, should robots be responsible for caregiving?

More Independence

The answer to this question comes from weighing the pros and cons of the situation. 

The benefits of having robots function as caregivers are pretty clear. Individuals are able to live more independently than they would if they had a human caregiver. There is a potential to save money, depending on how much the robot costs and how many person-hours it will save. The individual has a greater freedom of when and how often certain functions are performed.

Imagine a wheelchair user who relies on caregivers to get in and out of bed and to perform activities of daily living (ADLs). The person has to get up when the attendant is there, go to bed when the attendant is there and do ADLs when the attendant is there.

What happens if the person spills a drink or is caught in a rainstorm early in the day, but the caregiver doesn’t arrive until late in the evening? The person would probably have to sit in wet clothes until the caregiver gets there. If they had a robot that could perform the task, they could change clothes right away.

Limited Abilities

So, what are the cons to having a robot as a caregiver?

One negative is that the person can lose the social interaction a human caregiver can give that a robot cannot. Some people with disabilities rarely leave their homes. Their caregiver is their main source of social interaction.

Another problem is a robot’s inability to think and react in a surprise situation. A human caregiver who is present can notice things like pressure ulcers, spoiled food, medications that aren’t right, etc.

Robots, on the other hand, are only capable of doing what they’re programmed to do, and it’s impossible for the programmer to think of every possible surprise situation that could arise.

Monitoring & Privacy

The other option for this is to incorporate monitoring devices with the robots.

Devices like PerMMA (Personal Mobility and Manipulation Appliance) are robots that individuals can use themselves, but they also incorporate webcams that allow someone else to see what an individual is doing and have the capability for someone else to even control the robot.

This addition makes it possible for a human caregiver to monitor the situation without actually having to be at the person’s home.

However, this brings about new issues related to privacy. Is it an invasion of privacy for a person to be montored while at home and performing some potentially intimate tasks such as bathing and dressing? 

The answer depends on who is monitoring the video. If only a caregiver can see what is going on, then is it really any different for the caregiver to monitor the person over a webcam as compared to monitoring in person?

Why Not?

The bottom line on whether a robot should be a caregiver depends on the person who is asking the question and how well the robot and monitoring system can work. 

If the robot can do the job safely and reliably and there is enough human oversight to catch potentially harmful or medical situations, why shouldn’t a robot be able to function as a caregiver?

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