Is Anyone Really Thinking About The Elderly?
Before I begin, I have one question for you: How do you feel about robots? This is very important to think about, before you read my essay. Do you see them as something exciting or scary? Are you afraid they’ll replace you at your work? Do you feel like they could be the answer to problems we have? Would you be interested to learn more about them; how they work and what possibilities they might hold or perhaps you’ve decided you want nothing to do with them? Once you’ve dived deep into your feelings and thoughts about robots, you may continue reading.
The future seems to be full of robots. Whether we want or not we’ll eventually end up surrounded by them. I can say that I used to be afraid of social robotics. In my mind I was certain they’d replace us at work and eventually in life overall. Even though I was afraid something about them sparked my interest. I had a thought; could it be possible to create feeling, emotional creatures out of plastic? I ended up reading this book called Robotin Hoiviin by Särkikoski Tuomo, Turja Tuuli and Parviainen Jaana. In the book they talked about how scientists have already been able to create little robots that answer to pain. It is not impossible to create robots that feel emotions, we just have not been able to do it yet.
At the moment the robots don’t feel emotions, but they surely evoke a lot of them. People often see the metallic or plastic core as cold and heartless, but the cuteness in their big eyes makes you want to trust them. Us humans have this tendency to see humanity in things that aren’t human. This is how our brain makes new things less scary to us. For this reason, many robots have humanlike features. There is a line however for a robot to look too human when it’s seen as repulsive rather than sweet.
Because it is known that many of the social robotics are planned to be used in the healthcare industry, I was really interested to dive deeper into the ethics of caring for elderly people through robots. In the book it was wondered would it be ethically right to let a robot care for an elderly person with memory disorder. What if the robot makes a mistake, who is countable then? This is really interesting thought to me, because how I’ve been raised in the electronical world is that robots don’t make mistakes, but humans do. Robots are signed to do certain tasks and they perform flawlessly according to their code, but human errors are well known cause of mistakes. If we think about a mistake that robot makes, is it really done by the robot or by the creator who didn’t consider this outcome?
Loneliness is a problem that robots have been said to be the answer to. If we had robot companions, we’d have someone to talk to. In the book they wondered if robots truly the answer to loneliness are. Will seemingly empathetic piece of plastic answer to the emotional and social needs that an elderly person has? To me this sounds like a personal thing that has no right or wrong answer. For sure there are people who don’t feel like getting anything from a robot, but there also must be those who’d benefit from having at least that interaction in their everyday lives. If I think about my grandma, would I want her to have a robot companion? My answer is yes. It’s not about replacing the interaction with us relative, but it’s about bringing something new to her life. Something that helps her stay active and engaged in life.
I met this cute social robot named Pepper; I’d describe Pepper ad a little kid with big eyes and eagerness to help you. Why I wanted to meet a social robot myself was to have the firsthand experience to reflect on. Pepper was surprisingly good communicator and the way its eyes followed you made you feel like it wants to be in contact with you. Pepper was very polite to say hello to us the moment its power went on. Sure, the things Pepper said or did were coded in it, but the way it moved made it feel relatable. Pepper even made jokes that made me laugh. Taru Lehtimäki who introduced me to Pepper told be that when Pepper has visited nursing homes, it has brought a lot of joy to those who interacted with it.
One thing I learned while meeting Pepper was very conflicted with an information, I got from the book Robotin Hoiviin. Taru shared that when visiting elderly people with Pepper, many of them had asked if there would be a robot to help washing yourself. These elderly people felt that having a robot help them get washed would be much more comfortable that having a stranger to do that. In the book however when interviewing healthcare professionals, they thought that robots should absolutely not be involved with something so personal as getting washed, in their eyes it would be unethical and take away the last pieces of humanity. I found this dissenting opinion intriguing. While healthcare workers find the thought of a robot washing elderly people horrible, the cared for would actually prefer it.
Another interesting robot I was introduced to was Evandos the medicine machine that would automatically remind a person to take their medicine at the right time and would give them the right dose. In case a person would not take their medicine, the robot would inform the health care professionals to check the situation. How Taru explained it was that this robot would allow healthcare workers to focus on other tasks and not have that pressuring morning medicine run. To me this sounded like an incredible invention and I thought it would be highly used everywhere, but the reality for Finland was quite different. According to Taru, most healthcare professionals don’t even want to learn how the machine works, let alone tell their customers about the possibility.
Overall, when it comes to social robotics, Taru said that from a hundred healthcare teachers maybe 10 talk about the benefits of social robotics, if they talk at all. I can actually see why this is the case, as sad to me as it is. The huge fear of losing their jobs is what makes the healthcare workers be so against anything robotic. If you think about the industrial revolution and how factory workers were replaced by machines, this fear makes much more sense. That is how healthcare workers see the future if robots are allowed to their workplace. What about the once who talk about the benefits of robotics in the healthcare industry? They see a different kind of future; they see robots allowing the healthcare professionals to focus more on the social and emotional needs of their customers while robots do the mechanical work. These professionals also see the ever-growing need for solutions in the healthcare that is heavily overloaded. The healthcare workers mentioned in the study seemed more willing to havea robot that they could control rather than a robot doing things by itself. This seems twisted because the latter is the once which would actually free more time for workers to do the emotional side of care. The reason behind the thinking might be that a robot that needs you to function can’t replace you.
How it’s all going to turn out is something no one can predict and will only reveal itself once we’ve gone through the revolution of robotics. In the book they wondered if the idea of healthcare workers focusing on the emotional and social needs of their customers was just a fairytale. They backed this up with the fact that everything comes down to cutting costs and would our society really be willing to pay for an emotional care of elderly people when the physical needs are been taken care of by a robot that needs no salary. Would it actually be so that human contacts would minimize to a level of nonexistent?
The robots will become part of our everyday life even in the healthcare industry and that is a fact. We don’t have the human capacity to match the need of healthcare. That is why we’ll need robotics and automation more and more when it comes to healthcare. The people fighting against robotics are in useless battle I think. No matter how much they push back they’re not able to stop the progress happening in front of them. They are slowing it down however because their negative attitudes make it harder to get anything forward. This also shuts out the possibility of healthcare workers having an impact on the way the machines operate. Rather than fighting against they should join the process and make sure the machines are truly helpful. I was a bit annoyed how negative the book overall was about the social robotics and their capability. Why should they be able to do everything, can’t a robot be designed to do something to help? How are the robots going to evolve if no one is willing to work on them and if no healthcare professionals are willing to give their input how can the robots be designed in the right way?
In Finland part of the problem also is that our towns don’t have the know-how of getting the robots and using them. Many of them are also expensive at the moment which makes it less likely for small towns to purchase the robots. When you have a negative attitude towards the robots it’s also impossible to see any good in them. This was also why I wanted you to think about your feelings towards the robots before reading this, because it has a huge impact on how you see what you’re reading. The negative attitude is the biggest problem social robotics is facing. The fear of losing their jobs is reflected on the way healthcare workers see robotics and at the moment it’s not looking so bright.
We already have robotics in our everyday life; our phones, robot vacuums, our siri and the chatbot at your bank are just some examples of things we use without thinking about it being a robot or even a social robot. These things are highly accepted into our society even though some people resisted harshly in the beginning. This is a demonstration of how useless the rebellion against robotics is. The negative attitude is eventually really time and energy consuming. While fighting with a wind mill you could be a part of the change and see how to make the best of it. I know I was afraid of robotics too, but I met Pepper and how could I possibly be afraid of something so cute that tells a joke about being spicy cause their name is Pepper? The more I’ve dived into the concept of social robotics or robotics in general I see that there are endless possibilities with them.
The book talked a lot about how ethical or unethical it would be to let a robot take care of elderly people. I’m not going to touch more on the thoughts they had in the book because I think it does not matter what the writers or the healthcare professionals think about ethics on this issue. They are not the people who should decide what is ethical. Should we not rather be asking from the elderly people possible being taken care of by robots in the future if they see it ethical? Would it not be most ethical to let people decide whether or not they want to be taken care of by a robot or a human? In order for them to make that decision they need to hear all the options first, which is the responsibility of the caretakers to provide.
About the ethics however by the survey conducted by the writers it turned out that from the nurses, practical nurses and physical therapists those who felt like robots could not really offer anything in the healthcare industry were also the once who said robots to be unethical. This is why it’s so important to be aware of your own feelings, thoughts and even ethics. Let’s circle back to the very beginning when I asked you how you feel about robots. How you feel about them and how useful you see them comes down to how well suited to your ethics robots are. Once you have an understanding of your feelings and ethics think about why you feel that way. What makes you think this is right or wrong? Are you thinking about the benefits elderly people would have or are you afraid of losing your job? Is it worse to lose your job and able the elderly to be taken care by robots or is it better to unable the sufficient and personal care? Are you seeing the facts or are you twisting them to fit your narrative? Are you looking at this issue truly from a selfless point of view? At the end are any of us really thinking about the elderly or are we all out for ourselves? Are we doing what we think is best or are we doing what the elderly really needs?
Written by: Emilia Parikka
Särkikoski, T. Turja, T. Parviainen, J. 2020. Robotin Hoiviin