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Study Highlights the Double-Edged Sword of Robotic Technologies

If people have seen science fiction television series like Westworld or Humans, they might be envisaging a near future where smart, humanoid robots play a significant role in fulfilling the requirements of people, such as caring for older relatives or children.

Robots are increasingly becoming a feature of care services, capable of carrying out manual tasks as well as providing social interaction. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

However, in reality, present technologies in this industry are not yet completely humanoid. Despite this fact, many different robots are being employed in care services such as health, education disability, and aged care.

According to the latest study published by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, governments have to meticulously plan for the unavoidable expansion of such technologies in order to protect vulnerable people.

Care crisis and the rise of robots

Similar to several other sophisticated liberal democracies, Australia is expecting a future with an older population, together with a more complicated mix of chronic disease and illness. In this context, several care organizations that are already operating under rigorous fiscal constraints have reported difficulties in recruiting an adequate number of qualified staff.

In the coming days, this problem will be further aggravated by the increased numbers of retirees and fewer numbers in the working-age population. If another fact—increased consumer expectations—is added to this equation, then future care services might well be encountering a rather perfect storm.

Robots are progressively turning out to a feature of care services and have the ability to fulfill a number of roles ranging from social interaction through to manual tasks. Their extensive application has been heralded as an essential vital tool in tackling the care crisis. Japan is one among the many countries which see that robots are playing a major role in bridging its workforce gaps in care services.

Paro, a therapeutic robot, is being used by several Australian residential aged care facilities. This robot looks and sounds similar to a baby harp seal. It makes sounds and moves its head, flippers, and heavily lashed wide eyes to interact, and also responds to specific forms of touch on its hairy coat. The robot has been widely used in aged care in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia, usually among patients living with dementia.

An interactive companion robot called Nao was also developed in a humanoid form, but its height measures only 58 cm. The robot has undergone several different iterations and has been applied to a wide range of applications across the globe, such as in various educational and research institutes and to assist children engaged in pediatric rehabilitation.

The double-edged sword of technology

Robots have the ability to improve productivity, and at the same time, they can improve both safety and quality. However, there is always a possibility of misuse or unintentional consequences. As a result, questions have been raised regarding the use of robots, where they potentially reduce privacy, subject people to data hacking, or even cause physical harm.

Moreover, there is no evidence regarding the possible long-term implications of interactions between humans and machines. The study investigated the kind of roles that robots should and, even more crucially, should not play in care delivery services. Researchers also studied the government’s role as a steward in building this framework through interviews with 35 healthcare, academic, and policy experts from across New Zealand and Australia.

They discovered that in spite of these technologies that are already being employed in aged care facilities, government agencies, hospitals, and schools don’t usually think strategically regarding their use and generally aren’t aware of the dangers and possible inadvertent consequences.

This implies that it is the interests of technology suppliers that are largely driving the sector. In some cases, providers are purchasing these kinds of technologies to distinguish them in the market, but at the same time, they are also not invariably engaging in critical analysis.

The study participants found that robots were actually “leveraged” as something novel and attractive to make sure that young people are continuously engaged in learning, or as “a conversation starter” with prospective families looking for aged care providers.

However, as the technologies become more advanced, there are major risks. Building on studies conducted in other emerging technologies, the participants also raised questions regarding dependence and addiction on the robot. If the robot breaks down or becomes obsolete, what would happen? And if a robot inflicted harm, who would be responsible?

As artificial intelligence advances, robots are anticipated to develop various levels of capabilities for “knowing” the humans they are caring for. This further raises questions about security issues and potential hacking. On the downside, it raises concerns of inequity if different levels of care are provided at different price points.

Study participants were also concerned about the unintentional consequences of the relationships between humans and robots. Families are likely to think that the robot proxy will act as adequate companionship, for example, and may leave their aged relatives socially isolated.

What should governments do?

Here, the government can play a vital role by controlling the quickly developing market. The authors propose a responsive regulatory method, which depends on the sector to peer- or self-regulate, and to escalate problems as they occur for later regulation. Such an engagement will call for behavior change, education, and various regulatory measures that go further than formal rules.

The government has a critical role in aiding providers to understand the various technologies that are available and also their evidence base. Usually, care providers find it difficult to access good evidence related to technologies and their effectiveness. Per se, they are mostly being informed by the market, instead of being informed by high-quality evidence.

As part of the study, the researchers spoke to many stakeholders who also see a role for government and how it can help to create an evidence base that can be accessed by providers. This is very significant where technologies could have been tested, but in a completely different national context.

Most respondents recommended the establishment of industry standards to safeguard against the loss of jobs, and also against data and privacy threats.

Governments should now take the responsibility to make sure that vulnerable people are not harmed or exploited by technologies, and they must also make sure that robots don’t substitute human care and cause greater social isolation.

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