Graeme Foster, Chief Executive at elderly housing specialists Alpha Living, believes robots have a role to play in caring for older people, but that they can never truly replace the human touch…
News stories of robots being used in care homes to tackle loneliness say much about how we approach the challenge of ensuring older people can access the care they need and deserve.
On one level, it raises a vision of a dystopian future of films and books, filled with automatons with the personality of Hal, the strength of The Terminator, and the consciousness of Tudyk from iRobot.
These cultural references can make it feel like the march of technology is inevitable.
However, just because we’re clever enough to build a robot that might take the place of a carer or support worker, it doesn’t mean that we should.
Is this really what we want for older and vulnerable people?
Neuroscience – and plain lived experience – tells us that human beings belong in a tribe. Loneliness is deadly.
Loving and fulfilling relationships are the key to happiness. The value of conversation, understanding, and touch is incredible. It fires our neurons, it gets our endorphins going, it makes us happy. Most of all it makes us human.
It means so much when we’re asked how we feel or we’re told we look good today, even if we feel awful. Just the thought of having someone around us who knows us is a comfort and a basic need.
Why should we plan to take these qualities away from people who need them most? A robot carer might be efficient at recording interaction or administering medicine, but it can’t actually care. Not in the human sense.
What does the robot story really say about how we regard our care system? I can’t think of anyone who might prefer interacting with a robot over a human. If it’s not good enough for you or me, or our parents, then it’s just not good enough.
“A robot carer might not demand a living wage or get sick, and in a narrow sense might be cheaper – but at what cost?”Graeme Foster
The story tells us that, even in a post-COVID world, care and support professions are undervalued, that those skills can be replicated in a series of algorithms. A robot carer might not demand a living wage or get sick, and in a narrow sense might be cheaper, but at what real cost?
Care is much more than a monetary transaction. Keeping people well is important from every point of view. Care and support are important professions, and seeing this low-paid work as replaceable and programmable devalues us all.
The semi-automation of care could be the thin end of the wedge. Technology will have a place as an adjunct to care, but it can never replace it.
Let’s place more value on those who dedicate their lives to caring for people who need our support and affection later in life. Let’s not sleepwalk into a future where human relationships are replaced by computer code.
Main image credit: Shutterstock
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