Robots Put ‘Care’ Back into Healthcare
By Janet Sawari  |  Dec 03, 2021
Robots Put ‘Care’ Back into Healthcare
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Companion robots were created to improve social engagement, and for the purposes of creating real or apparent companionship for human beings. They have become something of a boon in the healthcare sector recently providing comfort especially for the elderly. Janet Sawari examines the role of companion robots and their place in modern medical care.

JOHANNESBURG - When my seven-year-old niece was asked what the difference between humans and robots is, she replied, with great conviction, “Humans have a lot of feelings, they cry. Robots don’t cry.” This was not the expected answer, though she was not far off the mark.

The robotic industry has often been plagued with controversy, mainly because of the notion that artificial intelligence (AI) will replace humanity or wipe it off the face of the planet. To say Hollywood has played a big role in the depiction of this fate is safe, but another side to this fictitious dystopian idea is also present. Robots exist that are able to play a companion role, as do robots imbued with compassion, e.g., Walt Disney’s Wall-E and David in Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Artificial Intelligence.’

These types of robots within the healthcare sector are not involved in complex surgery, diagnostic techniques, or treatments, and they fall between therapeutic and mental health applications which are increasing in clinical relevance. With innovations ranging from virtual psychotherapists to social robots in dementia care, and autism disorder, to robots for sexual disorders, AI, virtual, and robotic agents are taking on high-level therapeutic interventions that used to be offered exclusively by highly trained, skilled health professionals. 

Social robots are autonomous technologies with a physical presence that work collaboratively with people in human environments and open contexts. This distinguishes them from industrial and space robots that operate in predictable spaces and under controlled conditions. Social robots have been mostly used for a narrow set of menial tasks - such as vacuum-cleaning - and have yet to work their way into more meaningful daily experiences.

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