Is cuddling with care robots our future?

Zoë Tuithof

Many of my friends and family members work in healthcare. One cannot be home at Christmas, the other goes to bed on New Years Eve, and the next is absent from the gala at the local pub: "I have (day, evening or night) shift." For many doctors, nurses and other carers, this is the daily, irregular reality.

Robots and workload
And yet this is still not enough: there are large shortages, they work overtime regularly and 1 in 8 young care workers end up in a burnout due to the high workload. And we have not yet mentioned the shocking fact that 1 in 3 young care workers comes home exhausted. This, while the aging of the population is still in full swing and the staff shortage continues to persist. Reason for panic? Not immediately. Robotization can offer a solution.

Technological care

The aging of the population is even more problematic in Japan than in the Netherlands. This is partly due to the greater shortage of health care employees. Wages are low and physical and mental workload high. Japan indeed sees the solution to this problem in robotization. For example, there are exoskeletons that facilitate the work of healthcare workers, such as lifting a client, and Panasonic is developing a robotic bed that can transform itself into a wheelchair.

Routine robots

Research agency McKinsey and IT company Unit4 investigated the development of robotization in healthcare. Unit4 says that given the growing world population, we need to recognize the need for robotization: "We can't feed all those mouths without tasks taken over from us by technology." McKinsey predicts that the content of our work will change rather than that it will disappear - people can add value to functions that are difficult to robotize.

I could imagine that in the future robots could do the intakes, on the basis of questions and answers, or could give medication to the right people. As a result, the human care worker has more time for other tasks. Therefore working in healthcare can become more fun and less stressful. Koen van Mensvoort (Next Nature Web) also sees opportunities for care robots that make time for human contact. Sick people in particular need authentic human care. When robots take over administrative and routine tasks, there is room for that.

Communicating robots

People of course need company. And robots are there for that too. An example is Pepper, a humanoid robot that is increasingly used in healthcare, among other things. The robot has a human shape and is equipped with face and speech recognition. Pepper can communicate with clients, entertain them and make sure they end up in the right place by "walking" (rolling) with them. Pepper is already working hard in Japan, in the Netherlands he has recently been 'hired' as a new employee at the Archipel Zorggroep. He was allowed to introduce himself at the New Year's reception.

Pepper introduces himself

Cuddle robots

And it can still be "closer". Sony introduced a robot puppy (Aibo) that can mentally assist clients and provide therapeutic companions. But not all companion robots have the appearance of a shiny, technological creature. Seal pup Paro and the robot cats from Joy For All, for example, are equipped with soft hairs, so you can pet them and react to them.

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Robotics and emotion

The line between cold technology and warm humanity seems to blur more and more. For example, while visiting a customer, my colleague Leon saw Pepper standing head down in a corner; the battery was empty and it was charging. "Pepper is under penalty," the receptionist joked. The robot responded by looking up at the person who mentioned his name. At that time Leon even felt almost sorry for the robot, which looks so human-like.

The mother of colleague Ineke is in a nursing home. In the department they have 1 robot cat for 20 people. The cat is very popular because when it is on your lap, and you pet it, it starts purring enthusiastically. So excited that you even feel it. The cat meows at his "owner", even if he is just lying on the table or on a shelf. That leads to more stroking. This is often not possible, because the cat has to be shared with so many people. Ineke has seen several people become very sad when they had to "hand in" the cat. They feel connected to it: it is not a robot, it is a pet! And with that they take over a function that many health care workers no longer have time for: comfort and skin contact.

Joint evolution

In this way, man evolves with the development of robotics; as the robot becomes more human, humans can develop feelings of empathy for the technological application. Whether this is a good sign, everyone can say for himself. The fact is that robots can support care tasks that simply have to be performed, but for which we can no longer find the manpower. And that they can actually provide warmth and company. The time saved with their efforts may soon be spent on family at Christmas.

Maximum empathy for technology

Zoë Tuithof is an analyst at ftrprf. She wrote this article in a personal capacity for the theme Robotization


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