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RSA highlights robotics potential in social care


New report says robots and artificial intelligence ease the pressure on hard pressed care providers

Robotics and artificial intelligence have the potential to play a major role in social care, taking on the more mundane functions of care workers and some tasks that demand emotional intelligence, according to a new report.

The Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has come up with a positive outlook around the technology in The Age of Automation: Artificial intelligence, robotics and the future of low skilled work.

The central argument is that the deployment of AI and robotics could help to phase out mundane jobs, raise productivity levels, open the door to higher wages, and allow workers to concen­trate on more human-centric roles beyond the technical reach of machines. This is just as true for low skilled as high skilled workers.

While much of its focus is on the prospects for business areas including retail, transport and hospitality and leisure, it includes a sector case study on social care, highlighting the potential for robots to take on some of the tasks currently performed by care workers. This would allow them to become attentive to patients and become absorbed in the core act of caring.

It points to work on technology such as artificial intelligence in monitoring systems that provide contextual understanding. This can be placed in older people’s homes to pick up on early signs of distress and raise alerts when necessary.

Heavy lifting

Assisting robots with features such as torque sensors and precise actuators could help to lift patients, and some could even answer basic questions and respond to human emotions. Other robots could move food and medicines for patients, and some are under development to support autistic children with repetitive games.

The technology could also support administration in the sector: the report points to Harrow Council’s partnership with IBM Watson to develop an AI powered personal budget tool.

It says a social care project is already under way in London, where domiciliary care service provider Three Sisters Care is working with partners on the CHIRON project, in which a modular robot can be installed in homes to ensure that one, rather than two carers are needed to lift a patient. It could also help people in maintaining their personal hygiene preparing their own meals.

Jobeda Ali, co-founder of Three Sisters Care, said the technology could help it cope with the pressures of staff churn and absences, and was supportive of the general message of the report.

Easing crisis

“The UK’s social care system is in crisis,” she said. “There simply aren’t enough care workers to serve the needs of a growing older population, and our existing workforce faces enormous pressure in picking up the slack.

“We see the use of robotic systems not as a looming challenge but a welcome relief. By doing the more manual, repetitive and mundane tasks, the machines we’re developing will allow our staff to do what they do best: spend time with patients, give them emotional attention and be a source of comfort.

“I’m not interested in robots to cut my workforce, but to plug staff shortages and make caring a more meaningful and sophisticated profession.”

Among the report’s recommendations are to establish a National Centre for AI & Robotics, which would encourage the responsible take-up of innovations among industry, and for employers to co-create automation strategies with their workforce – setting out how staff can retrain to work alongside new machines.

It also looks at funding for AI and robotics, warning that the UK’s departure from the EU could compromise support for innovation (with 80% of funding for UK robotic and autonomous system research reportedly coming from the EU, according to the House of Commons Science Committee).

The authors urge the government to raise its funding commitment as well as for the social investment community to throw their weight behind “socially responsible technology”.

Image by Nick Amoscato, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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