En robot med skjerm står ved en sykeseng.
Six robots assisted at the Circolo hospital in Italy during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Will society become colder if robots help the sick and elderly?

Social robots could soon assist in nursing homes or even be present in our living rooms. Is there a risk that they will replace human interaction?

As the population ages and people live longer, there will likely be an increased need for labour in the healthcare sector. 

Robots and various types of technology could help relieve workers in the health and care sector.

Eventually, it might be possible to use social robots that can interact with people, talk, or perform tasks in nursing homes or in private homes.

Will these robots be beneficial, or could they lead to problems?

What is being replaced?

There is a potential for robots to make society colder, says Henrik Skaug Sætra.

He is an associate professor at the University of Oslo’s Department of Informatics and works with philosophy and ethics related to technology.

“The question is what kind of human work we're replacing. If we replace the caregiving aspect of human contact, it becomes much more problematic,” he says. 

Sætra thinks that support robots that can help with heavy lifting or fetching things could be positive.

“But if we’re talking about social robots, there's a possibility that it could become tempting to partially replace human contact with this type of robot," he says. 

En robot-sel som ser ut som et kosedyr.
Paro, a robot seal that looks like a stuffed animal.

Robots that keep you company

Experiments have been conducted with Paro, a social robot seal used in nursing homes for people with dementia.

These experiments have shown that this is something the residents enjoy, according to Sætra.

“Residents actually become happier, more social, and score better on physical and mental health indicators,” he says.

“It could become tempting to allow this type of robot to partially replace human contact. A human might provide greater benefits, but they’re a much more expensive option.”

With an ageing population, an increasing number of dementia cases, and a shortage of healthcare workers, some tough choices need to be made. 

“However, if we replace personal caregiving interactions, it could indeed lead to a colder society in some respects," he says. 

We must consider the alternatives

Atle Ottesen Søvik is a professor at the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society with a focus on the philosophy of religion.

He points out that we must consider what the care alternatives are.

If the alternative is that the elderly receive little or poor care due to limited human capacity, it might be better for robots to assist. 

However, he believes it can be easy to prioritise wrongly. The sense of care and dignity might be lost if too much is automated.

“The importance of the care dimension should not be underestimated. Research shows that you can endure a lot if you feel valued. If you feel like a nuisance and a burden, life can feel very painful,” Søvik says.

While robots might be a cost-effective solution, Søvik argues that we should not focus solely on the numbers. Other values must also be considered, such as recognition, dignity, and community.

Mange roboter i barnestørrelse av samme type står på rekker.
The iPal robot from China is designed to keep children company.

Robots can give the impression of having empathy

But can robots also provide a sense of care and recognition?

This is where the research results diverge, says Søvik.

“Some people want to feel empathy from another person, while others question how genuine that empathy really is. Is the person just pretending to care without actually being interested?"

In a study reported by The Guardian, researchers compared responses from doctors and ChatGPT to medical questions. ChatGPT scored higher for both empathy and the quality of the advice it provided.

Some people might be satisfied with a companion robot they can talk to.

“You might feel that there’s no judgment. I don't feel like a burden, the robot has plenty of time,” he says. 

Others find that companion robots don’t work for them.

Not yet widespread

So far, social assistance robots have not taken become widespread. Pepper is one of the robots that has been created to provide entertainment and companionship in nursing homes.

The robot was developed in 2014. Few places have adopted it, according to The Atlantic. Production of the robot was paused in 2020 due to a lack of demand.

Pepper does not seem to have relieved caregivers. Instead, time has been spent manoeuvring it, according to the article.

En hvit robot med et enkelt fjes og armer, kjører på hjul forbi en sykepleier i en gang.
Pepper has not become a success in nursing homes.

Can you befriend a robot?

Let's say it becomes possible to have a social robot at home. Could this lead to people becoming more isolated, with their social needs artificially met by a robot? Or could a relationship with a robot be good enough?

“You might immediately think that of course a robot can’t be your friend. But it’s more debatable than you might think,” says Søvik.

Humans can form relationships with robots and feel acknowledged as the robot learns how to get to know you.

“We can feel a sense of recognition that both the robot and I are distinct individuals, who are vulnerable and can break. There are many social dimensions that are interesting to explore,” he says.

But there are differences between the relationship with a robot and a relationship with other humans. One of them is that people spend a long time getting to know each other and build a relationship. Søvik points out that a robot can 'like' everyone equally.

“This is where I think there’s a value in human weakness, which binds us together and enables us to experience a kind of bond that we can’t have with robots,” he says.

Another aspect is that a good friend can challenge you.

“The machine is often designed just to tell you that you’re great and might not provide the challenges and resistnce you need," he says. 

Robots as slaves

Should assistance robots instead be designed in such a way that prevents people from forming attachments to them too easily?

Henrik Skaug Sætra thinks this might be appropriate.

“We form attachments to all types of technology, even very simple technology. The more human-like the technology is, and the more it pretends to have emotions and human characteristics, the stronger the attachment becomes,” hesays.

Replika is a service where people can create an AI companion to chat with.

“We’ve seen that quite a few people form strong bonds with AI programs like Replika. It’s designed to be a romantic partner, and people actually do fall in love with it,” he says.

If human-like robots are given the same ability to hold conversations as human beings, there is a danger that people might prefer relationships with these robots, according to Sætra.

“Some think that we should build robots that are ‘slaves’. The use of that term is controversial, but the point is interesting,” he says. 

En menneskelignende robot står på siden. Flere robot-hoder av samme type står ved siden av.
The robot Sofia made by Hanson Robotics is very human-like. This photo is from their lab in Hong Kong in 2021.

Not home alone

Some experts believe that service robots should simply do their job and bear little resemblance to humans.

“Making them as simple and dumb as possible can be good for both parties. This way, we won't face a situation where these robots need to be considered moral beings that we're responsible for and can't just treat any way we want,” says Sætra.

Others believe that making robots as human-like as possible is beneficial and will make communication more efficient.

Another aspect of home robots that can be problematic is the concern for privacy, says Marija Slavkovik.

She heads the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at the University of Bergen and studies artificial intelligence and ethics.

“Humanoid robots, like the ones being planned, have a lot of sensors,” she says.

Sometimes we behave differently when other people are around. At home, we behave as if we are alone, even though we have technology like washing machines and kitchen appliances.

"If the machines have sensors controlled by other people, then we aren’t truly alone anymore even when we're alone," says Slavkovik.

“This isn’t necessarily problematic if the legal and social framework is well planned and the situation is well understood by everyone.”

Are robots sustainable?

Does it make sense to work towards creating advanced humanoid robots at a time when we need to reduce consumption and emissions?

If this were cheap technology that could easily be ordered online, it would be problematic, says Sætra. That won't happen anytime soon. 

“If we manage to limit humanoid robots to sensible uses, then I think it can offset the material usage,” he says. 

Sensible uses would be to assign robots to perform dangerous, dirty, and boring tasks, according to Sætra.

“If we think everyone should have this type of robot just for fun, the issue of consumption would clearly be relevant,” he says. 

Sætra thinks there is currently more cause for concern about online services that are based on artificial intelligence, like ChatGPT.

These services require a lot of energy and large data centres and are often used just for fun.


Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse

Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no

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