An aging population combined with a shortage of skilled caregivers has resulted in the elderly facing the difficult situation of having to go into a care home or to live at home with inadequate support.
In the past few years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) robots have become increasingly advanced and can now perform social interactions. As the technology evolves, these robots could provide assistance around the house, medical and emotional support and reminders to complete critical tasks such as taking pills.
This article will discuss the benefits, drawbacks and potential dangers that AI robots could bring if they are developed for elderly care.
A modern problem with a modern solution?
The use of AI robots provides an opportunity to improve the quality of life of the elderly, at a critical time of a rapidly aging population and a lack of skilled caregivers. From a utilitarian point of view, implementing robots for elderly care is highly beneficial as it encourages the elderly to stay at home rather than to move into a care home. This is due to the elderly having the care they need in the comfort of their own home, facilitating independence and mental well-being. Kant would also argue that this is advantageous as it is an innate instinct to want to care for oneself. As a result, improving the care and quality of the life of others is perceived as morally valuable.
The power of data is another important benefit of AI robot care. Robots that can collect vast amounts of data about their elderly patients can provide a higher quality of care and make complex decisions through advanced analytics. Data can also provide an improved and consistent service; it actively reduces human error and it can be personalised to the needs of the individual, significantly more so than call-out doctors or nurses that deal with many patients.
It is also important to consider both sides of the human interaction; the care receiver and the caregiver. Elderly care patients can be suffering from complex and debilitating illnesses such as dementia, that cause the patient to not understand or accept their need for care. This relationship can result in significant distress to the caregiver. A utilitarian may therefore argue that replacing the caregiver with a robotic system would offer the greatest quality of life to the greatest number of people, as the caregivers could find work in more rewarding roles within the healthcare industry.
Across the developed world it is considered a basic right to receive care when you are no longer self sufficient. A patient’s own values, their pride and their dignity, may lead them to consider themselves a burden on the caregiver or on society as a whole, regardless of this universal right. A robotic carer would not have the capacity to judge or to pity, and so would not cause the patient to feel as if they have lost their pride or dignity. In engineering a robotic solution to the problem, we would therefore grant the patient not only the care they are entitled to, but we would allow them to retain their core values, allowing the engineer to feel as if they have acted with virtue. Is this feeling of burden however more reflective on a problem in societies norms, one that does not have an engineering solution?
Or are the old ways really the best ways?
The robots themselves can be expensive, leading question to the availability of the technology on a wide scale. Consequently, the implementation of AI robots could be considered morally unacceptable from a utilitarian perspective, because it may only benefit a few people who can afford the technology.
Robots store sensitive information which is vulnerable to hacking or misuse. Public safety, therefore, relies heavily on the virtue character of engineers to adhere to professional codes of conduct, which does not always occur. It could also be argued that the application of machine learning to enhance the quality of patient care acts against virtue ethics, as a model’s prediction is biased against the data it is fed, potentially leading to discriminatory or manipulative behaviour.
Currently there is more emphasis on cobots – robots that assist alongside caregivers, however the technology has the potential to develop and entirely replace the jobs of the caregiver. Utilisation of AI robots could cause redundancies within the sector, and discourage future nurses from entering the profession, could it ultimately make the problem worse?
The principle of care ethics comes from the motivation to care for those who are dependant and vulnerable, and is inspired by an individual’s memories of being cared for as well as an idealisation of self. In using a robot to provide this care, would it essentially be stripping the caregiver of this feeling, and the intrinsic quality caring for another brings to someone’s life?
As the technology advances, care robots are becoming more humanoid, and providing not only physical, but emotional support. ChihiraAico is a Japanese robot designed to look like a 32-year-old woman, with the idea that people will be more comfortable talking to a robot about their problems if they look more human. Research has hypothesized the relationship between the human likeness of a robot and our emotional connection, as seen in Figure 1.
It is difficult to find the right balance of human likeness that instills the desired emotional benefit from having a robot companion. Too dissimilar and no emotional connection is made rendering it useless, too similar, the robot could fall in the “uncanny valley”. If the technology progressed further there comes an issue of deceit in making robots as familiar as humans, and whether that is ethical in itself.
Are AI robots essentially being used as a way to rid people of the guilt and burden of caring for the elderly? Will they provide a realistic, much needed solution, or is it naive to think that a robot could ever replicate the care and attention of a human carer?
Our initial decision, we are: For, developing AI robots for the care of the elderly.