Help at Hand?

The current media focus on digital technology has paid great – and necessary – attention to the dangers of these developments to our children. It is good this week to change the focus from dangers to benefits and from children to the older generation.

This is certainly the intention of Dr Ardhendu Behera Senior Lecturer the  Department of Computer Science, Edge Hill University in Lancashire. Expert in the area of Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) Dr Behera and his team have been working on Robbie, a toddler sized robot who is learning how to apply HRI skills to real life care situations. As Dr Behera explained in an interview with the Lancaster Post:

“In modern times with our aging society, we believe robots can play a vital role in the care of older people. They could also be used in a traditional home setting, observing an older person between visits by a carer or relative for example. The possibilities are endless.”

Dr Behera continued, that although robots are increasingly used in healthcare diagnostics and surgery, “they are not yet used in the social care sector where we see huge potential for development and growth. Robots like Robbie could be used in so many situations and settings to monitor vulnerable people. Initially, we see Robbie being most useful in residential care homes where he can be a companion to residents and can keep an eye on them, watching and recording what they eat, drink, if they take their medication, their emotions and more.”

We may find it amusing that one of the ways Robbie is being trained is by watching episodes of Emmerdale and Friends, but the seriousness and importance of the project cannot be overestimated. The crisis in social care, the epidemics of loneliness and mental health issues will need creative responses from us all. There is certainly space for Robbie and his later versions in this.

But there also needs to be space, funds and time for more HHI – Human-Human Interactions. One of the causes of the social care deficit is the human cost of caring. Families struggle to juggle the demands of full-time work, child-care, and increasingly, caring for older relatives too.

At Home Renaissance Foundation we have been interested to learn about Backto60, a campaign group fighting to give women who lost out in the realignment of pensions in 2010 the right to claim a state pension at 60. Backto60 points out that these are women born in the 1950s, who stepped out of the workplace repeatedly to do unpaid caring work for their families. A contribution that has not been recognized or valued and now puts women in positions of hardship and distress, argues Joanna Welch, Backto60 representative.

Underlying this campaign and much of the discussion of social care is about how society values the work of caring for each other. The fact that it is most often done out of love and ties of family affection does not mean it should be taken for granted. Quite the reverse, it should be valued and supported even more because this weight is carried by individuals rather than by organizations.

Just how best this work of caring is supported is the subject of live debate, not least by HRF (See Conference 2017). It will take more than Robbie watching Emmerdale – useful though these applications might be – to address the real challenges we face.