May 12, 2021

Soldering Point

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Could robots in care homes solve the UK’s social care crisis?

Talking robots could be used in care homes to cure loneliness (Picture: PA/EPA) Meet Pepper,...

Talking robots could be used in care homes to cure loneliness (Picture: PA/EPA)

Meet Pepper, a robot friend for the elderly that could be a vital helping hand for Britain’s social care crisis.

The glossy white, streamlined machine resembling Will Smith’s I, Robot, is ‘culturally competent’ and engages in unscripted conversations, reminds residents to take their medication, and plays music on demand.

Although it cannot perform physical tasks or prepare medication, the robot is fully autonomous which means it operates on its own.

Pepper is part of the international Caresses project, trialled across the UK and Japan with care home residents for a year, where each resident was given the robot for up to 18 hours over two weeks.

Researchers reported a ‘significant improvement’ in the mental health of residents who interacted with Pepper, and a slight improvement in loneliness.

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The lead researcher behind the project, Dr Chris Papadopoulos from the University of Bedfordshire said residents were initially sceptical about the robot fearing it would replace human care.

However, once residents realised Pepper was a ‘supplementary tool’ to support existing care, their attitudes towards the robot softened.

He said: ‘This robot couldn’t possibly replace human care. It’s clearly got limitations and is no way as capable as a human carer.

‘There are so many periods of time during the day where residents in care homes don’t have anyone to talk with.

‘They’re isolated. They’re on their own, that is the reality for so much of existing social care because there’s so many care assistants we don’t have.’

According to Age UK, 1.4 million elderly people in England are chronically lonely.

Since 2010, the government has cut spending on adult social care by £86 million, and 1.5 million people aged 65+ don’t receive the care and support they need with essential day-to-day activities.

Pepper’s ability to adapt to the cultural complexity of an individual was tested on residents from three different cultural groups: Japanese, English, and Indian.

The robot uses ‘groundbreaking’ new Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed by Caresses, and international project funded jointly by the European Commission and the Ministry of Internal Affairs & Communications in Japan.

‘Our thinking all along was that getting to talk about meaningful things that relate to their cultural heritage and their life.

‘That’s going to improve their cognitive health, improve the decline of dementia, and improve their overall wellbeing, because talking is good for you.’

However, the project has been met with concern by some experts.

Lecturer in Dementia Studies Dr Grant Gibson at the University of Stirling said human contact was ‘essential’ to person-centred dementia care.  

‘We should be using technology to give care home staff more, not less time to spend meaningfully engaging with their residents,’ he said.

‘Care home staff are overstretched, but we should be looking to technology to reduce other aspects of their workload, not reducing the time they spend in their direct contact with their residents.’

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