Articles - And finally robot pets

The use of robots in Japanese care homes has featured a lot lately in the last segment of the news – the light-hearted piece that is scheduled in order to finish the news broadcast on a pleasanter note, following the bad news items that have gone before. These segments generally focus on the ability of automated robots to interact with elderly people and perform simple tasks such as fetching a glass of water or switching off a light. The topic is dealt with as an amusing item to amaze and entertain people.

 By Tom Murray Head of Product Strategy at Exaxe

 But beneath the trivial entertainment value of these segments, lies a serious question; is this is a feasible solution for the UK, given the huge looming issue of care provision for the country? Even though the approach of Brexit has caused a lot of speculation and concern regarding how care is to be provided once the freedom of movement from the EU has ended, no linking of this has been made to the rapid advances in the automaton field. This is despite the fact that it is now feasible that robots could be used to ameliorate or even solve the problem.

 The ageing of society is putting huge pressures on the government, pressures that they are trying to offload to others such as the insurance industry. Given this, the insurance industry should also be playing close attention to the advances in the field of robotics relating to elderly care.

 In Japan, in particular, robots are being used to provide companionship to elderly people. Not just through the provision of entertainment and allowing them to make video contact with family and friends easily, although this is useful, but robot dogs and cats are now also being used to provide the physical contact and interaction that all humans need. Although it might seem odd to many, the approach has been very successful with elderly people responding to the animals who have been programmed to look for attention and affection and provide it in return. Some care homes in the UK are using them too, with the agreement of the families required as there is some hesitation around the fact that patients with dementia actually believe the animals are real, and so there is the ethical question of whether it is ok to effectively lie to people who are not capable of discerning the truth.

 But it is the extension of this idea into the individual home that I think is the area with most potential. If these dogs were provided as part of a care package in the individual’s home, many elderly people could extend the length of their independent living phase substantially. A lot of those admitted to care homes are there because of fears that they may have an accident, rather than because of any immediate injury. The big fear of many elderly is of suffering an injury and being unable to get help. Hence, anything that enables them to stay safer in their own home for longer would be a far more efficient way to ensure that they were safe without the distress of being moved into a care home.

 A robot pet could do much to help keep the elderly safe in their own home. As well as providing company, they have the ability to monitor the person and send a signal back to a central control room in the event that an incident happens or that the elderly person stops responding to them. So, in the event of a fall, the animal can be programmed to try to get a response from the individual and then, if this fails, to send an immediate alert to a control centre which would be able to switch on cameras in the animal’s eyes and see what had happened. If there was an issue, emergency services could be alerted immediately.

 Of course, there is a level of intrusiveness about this, but far less than the intrusiveness that comes automatically with living in a care home, where nurses can come in and out of your room to check on you at any time. Many people would like the opportunity to remain in their own home as long as possible, and therefore would permit this lower level of intrusiveness if it could help them to do so.

 How would this effect the insurance industry? Well, the pay-outs on long-term care policies would obviously be reduced if people went into care-homes later and these policies, which are by their nature quite expensive, could be made available at lower premiums to those who agreed to take the robot companion into their homes, and therefore reduced the chances of going into care homes earlier. This could make them more affordable, thereby broadening the market to include people on lower incomes.

 This could be a win-win-win for the elderly, the insurance companies and the taxpayer, who ultimately picks up the tab for care once people are no longer capable of looking after themselves. Rather than being a mildly entertaining news item, the advent of robo-dogs and robo-cats could herald a longer phase of independence for the elderly, a bigger market for care policies for the industry and a welcome reduction in the rate of increase in the cost of looking after the elderly for the government. Who knew that what were seen initially as toys for children could become a mainstay of life quality for the elderly?

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