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Rise of robots as carers: wielding a double-edged sword

We’ve seen warnings in the pages of science fiction novels on the potential for robots to switch from helping humans to hurting them, but with their increasing use in care environments, who would be responsible if a robot did cause harm?

This is an example of the kinds of concerns unearthed through a series of interviews between an Australian and international research team and care providers, technology suppliers and experts.

The subsequent report unpacked the roles that robots should and, importantly, should not play in care delivery.

Robots can take up tasks that human carers would rather not do, the report’s authors said. This includes being able to bear the brunt of repetitive activities, freeing up time for carers to focus on other tasks. They’re also immune to the psychological wear of a busy or frustrating workload.

Still, the team, from the University of New South Wales, University of Melbourne and Harvard University, noted that there is concern over robots not yet being sufficiently tested in care settings.

“Robotics raises questions around accountability and surveillance that have not yet been thought through,” the report read. “A host of legal issues could emerge from the use of robotics where it is not well established where responsibility ultimately lies.”

Writing in The Conversation, the authors said concerns have been expressed about the use of robots potentially reducing privacy, exposing people to data hacking, or even inflicting physical harm.

On top of this, the team found that robots are being brought into aged care facilities, schools, hospitals and government agencies without much strategic thought about their use.

Study co-author Catherine Smith from the University of Melbourne said often as technology was bought into a sector the move was based more on principles of marketing and partnerships rather than being driven by a specific need for a robot.

“It was not very evident at all that it was the end user who was defining the need that the robot was addressing,” Smith said.

The Conversation article said in this way the sector is largely being driven by the interests of technology suppliers. "Providers in some cases are purchasing these technologies to differentiate them in the market, but are also not always engaging in critical analysis."

Currently, many robotic devices are coming into caring sectors through different entry points, Smith added. “Some of them are considered toys, so they’re under legislation that protects people in terms of how safe a toy should be.

“Others are considered medical devices... there’s no overarching framework.”

The researchers said governments have a responsibility to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected within the context of new technologies.

This, they suggested, should be upheld through a responsive regulatory approach, in which the sector is supported to self- and peer-regulate, and escalate issues as they arise so that governments can set up appropriate regulation.

As one interviewee put it:

The real question is, what are we going to allow – are we just going to be a big experiment, where all the stuff is thrown upon us and we see what happens? Then just say, oops, sorry if that was the wrong answer. Or are we going to then end up overreacting and throw the baby out with the bath water... So, the conversation is absolutely essential, there's no doubt about that. We need to even move beyond the conversation now and start talking regulation and find frameworks through which that can be done.”

Interviewees also highlighted a gap in leadership in the space. The authors said a role for governments would be supporting providers to understand the different technologies available and generate an evidence base.

Smith said the team plans to hold a roundtable in the near future to consider what should go into a more universal framework that could be used to address some of the issues interviewees identified.

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