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The University of Sheffield Professor Addresses Parliamentary Symposium on Implications of Robots Caring for Elderly

One of the world’s leading experts on artificial intelligence and robotics is addressing a parliamentary symposium this week (24 March 2015) to highlight the impact and implications of robots caring for humans in old age.

Following a government announcement to create a strategy to drive the UK’s reputation for robotics excellence, Noel Sharkey, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, will speak at ‘Robot & Gran: Would you leave your parent or grandparent in the care of a robot?’ at the House of Lords on Wednesday 25 March 2015.

For the first time in history, there are 11 million people aged 65 or over in the UK with 3 million people aged 80 or over. Research suggests that about three-quarters of elderly people will develop a social care need, which can include anything from help getting up in the morning to round-the-clock support in a residential home. At the same time, a shrinking younger population could leave a care gap. Is the answer to be found in technology?

Providing the most appropriate and effective forms of care (physically, emotionally and mentally) for these people will present an enormous challenge, so much so it is anticipated that there will be a shortage of professionals who are trained, equipped and willing to take on the responsibility.

According to the UK strategy for Robotics and Autonomous System 2015, it is likely that robots and AI assisted appliances will take on the part of the role of care providers including meeting practical care needs, providing round-the-clock support and even providing a form of companionship. This is a striking technological and social development with widespread but poorly understood implications for the society as a whole.

The challenge is to start thinking through the opportunities and consequences of these advances and start engaging in some of the questions which arise including: What are the key ethical and social issues which should be shaping the agenda concerning the future use of AI and robotics in the care of the older person? How does this potentially impact upon the ‘specialness’ of human life and human identity? How do you keep the human more important than the technology or is that becoming less important?

Commenting on the event, Professor Sharkey said: “Robotics technology could greatly increase the freedom and independence of the aging population, allow people to stay in their homes for longer and facilitate their social lives. But we must be very wary of the dangers posed to civil and human rights. Choices should be in the hands of the user and based on their individual needs. Technology can assist with the tasks of care and we must ensure that it is not exploited for the practice of care.

Yesterday’s government press release stated that, "RAS can increase the UK’s health care productivity and reduce the total expenditure on long term care requirements of the UK’s ageing population." Professor Sharkey added: “While robots may help to reduce costs, we need to ensure that the well being of older persons is the first priority. We need to get the right balance”

Speakers will also include Dr. Heike Felzmann, Centre for Bioethical Research and Analysis, National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway and part of the EU Horizon 2020 project (MARIO) on assistive robotics for elderly with dementia and Prof Nigel Cameron, CEO of Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies and Executive Chairman of BioCentre. Following short expert presentations much of the time will be given over to a time of moderated panel discussion and Q&A with the audience.


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