Robots – Caretakers of the Future

With the implementation of new technologies, automated machines have become more affordable and effective. The roots of the automation are found in the industrialization and the beginning of mechanization. Since then, automated processes have steadily been gaining importance; and today production processes are largely automatized and industrial machines and robots are implemented to relieve workers from heavy manual work. For some years, robotic support has been spreading into a new sector: the everyday life assistance. Nowadays there are robots that help with domestic work. In the future, however, robots should not only be able to vacuum and support people with managing issues of everyday life but even take care of older adults, especially the ill or disabled among them.

Why will Nursing Robots be Essential in the Future?

Due to better healthcare, life expectancy is increasing. Simultaneously, especially in western countries birth rate is dropping. In Europe, for example, a woman has an average of 1,5 children, which is few considering the fact that according to the Eurostat facility statistics, 2,1 children should be born per woman to keep the population size constant. The reduction of the birth rate and the at the same time increasing life expectancy lead to an ageing society. In Japan, the imbalance between the working and the older population is particularly high. More than 30% of all Japanese are 65 years and older. This imbalance is caused by a significant high life expectancy combined with a very low average birth rate of only 1,2 children per woman. The lack of working population does not only affect the national budget and the pension fund but also means that there are too few nurses and carers for too many older people. According to an article published by the Stanford University, lack of caregivers is one of the main factors for Japan being in the leading position in the development of nursing robots.

Benefits of Robots nursing People

As an ageing society is becoming a challenge for more and more countries, the development of non-human nurses will be essential to cope with the lack of human caregivers. In the future, robots will assist older people at home, in hospitals and foster homes. One of the robots’ main benefits is that they are comparably cheap labour. Moreover, there are more retired people than people who work. As a result, this will lead to an increase of pension and, consequently, cheap nursing staff will be essential to handle supply and demand and to make sure that nursing will remain affordable.

Additionally, nursing robots will take on physical demanding work like carrying or moving people. Especially, when nursing immobile or handicapped people, the assistance of robots will be a great relief for nurses and caregivers.

No Benefits without Obstacles

Even though nursing robots are able to relieve the healthcare and maintenance system, there are still some improvements necessary before they can replace human nursing staff. Until now, nursing robots can take on easy tasks like helping patients move, delivering medicine and acting as interface between patient and doctor. However, robots cannot cover the ethical aspect. More precisely, they cannot make decisions other than “yes” or “no”; and they are not able to ponder advantages and disadvantages or to react adequately to interhuman communication. Therefore, according to Charova, Schaeffer & Garron, the greatest obstacle will be to give a kind of humanity to these machinelike robots. In order to make sure that they treat patients with respect, robots need to be provided with a reliable set of ethics.

Japan and Robots

Although nursing robots are far away from completely replacing “real” nurses and caregivers, there are already some “plate men” nursing people, most notably in Japan. For Alec Ross, Japan’s success in the robotics sector does not only depend on their technological know-how, since other countries would have the knowledge and the technical possibilities as well. The relatively high acceptance of robots in Japan is based on a cultural deposition. 80% of the Japanese practice the Shinto religion, which includes a belief in animism, i.e. attribution of a spirit to objects. Consequently, Japanese society is more likely to accept robotic assistance than Western culture, where the threat of humanity creating things that they cannot control can be found in literature and tales, see the most famous example Frankenstein.

The Robotic Future

The demographic situation will keep developing in the same direction and, thus, the imbalance between the working and the older generation will increase. As a result, we will soon not be able to meet the need of nurses and caregivers with human resources anymore; and we will depend on robots that take care of older people. Therefore, it is important that we accept this development and take up the challenge of creating robots that can nurse people in the same way a human can do.

Stanford: Robotic Nurses
eurostat: Fertility statistics
Business Insider: Japan is running out of people to take care of the elderly, so it's making robots instead
Science Daily: Your next nurse could be a robot