Improving human health through robotics 

Improving Human Health Through Robotics

By Isaac Teoh Shi Yang


Robotics has already entered the healthcare ecosystem, and medical robots are robotic machines utilized in health sciences, designed to serve for entirely different environments and tasks as compared to the industrial robots first developed about 50 years ago to automate dirty, dull, and dangerous tasks. Among the health tasks, three main classes can be identified: (1) surgery robotic devices, diagnosis, and drug delivery devices; (2) assistive robotics, including wearable robots and rehabilitation devices; (3) robots that mimic the human body, including prostheses, artificial organs, and body-part stimulators.

For the particular interest of this theme, assistive robotics, specifically social robots as one of the technologies of the socially assistive robotic system, will be discussed in relation to human health. Social life is essential for good health, and the social management of health is an aspect in which the assistance of robots could be extremely valuable, especially true for individuals dealing with health conditions that require long-term assistance. Any form of poor health, be it physically as in the case of the diagnosis of neuromotor disabilities, dementia in the form of one of many cognitive disorders, or even depression from the emotional point of view, as well as more complicated neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, overall negatively impacts one’s ability to form and maintain supportive social bonds.

To emphasize the need for socially assistive robots, this could solve the so-called ‘care crisis’ where the demand for healthcare services in high-income countries is increasing while the number of people to provide them has been reduced. This statement again holds true as seen in short-staffed teams in the United States, mainly where a shortage of thousands of nurses was reported as of 2021 in every state. Virtually every country is facing such a challenge to the extent where the shortage is projected to get worse over the next decade due to the imbalance ratio of nurses to patients.

What Can It Do?

Roles and Characteristics of Ideal Socially Assistive Robots:

  1. Ultimately, these machines are meant to assist users by providing necessary aid through engaging humans socially rather than just physical interactions.
  2. Therefore, it can be implied that at the very least, a social robot should be able to establish and maintain social relationships, capable of learning social skills development and role models, thus using gestures and gaze, at the same time communicate with high-level dialog with the involvement of not only expressing but also perceiving emotions through one’s personality and distinctive character.
  3. With the complex development of algorithms and methods that enable shared human autonomy and collaboration in the real world, specifically in healthcare settings, they are envisioned to provide support as a hospital assistant in general. They are capable of handling a combination of taking medical interviews, monitoring and keeping a record of symptoms, supporting patients in drug therapy in terms of helping with pill sorting and medication schedules by reminding patients to take a drug and or guiding people through therapeutic tasks. Aside from more technical roles, they can support patients from both a cognitive as well as communicative interaction point of view in providing companionship, acting as stress reducers and mood enhancers brought about by simply stimulating them with games per se and supporting social interactions between humans.

Typical Example of Socially Assistive Robot and the Progress of Such Development

One of the most popular commercialized socially assistive robots used in care settings is the award-winning artificial intelligence therapy robot known as PARO, most easily recognized by its baby harp seal appearance designed as a pet therapy for older people with dementia. PARO has already been in use for more than a decade in multiple countries. The concept of PARO is that robotic pets require less care and are safe to use given the fact that animals are not always amenable to care settings. Various benefits have been reported through the use of PARO, including reduced stress, anxiety, and antipsychotic use among older people diagnosed with dementia, thus offering new possibilities to support and improve dementia care as evidenced by various reports studying what worked with PARO, in which situation did it display effectiveness and how it is being achieved.

As years pass, another service robot known as the Care-O-bot 4 has caught the attention of public eyes. It has been invented and modified since 1998 and was only completed in 2015 to be released, being built upon the many versions of Care-O-bot I, II, and 3. It has a human body appearance with a ‘head,’ ‘trunk,’ and ‘base’ joined at the pivotal points ‘neck’ and ‘hip’ in a natural way. One can imagine it possesses a certain agility to perform human movements where it can send physical cues that are familiar and sociable, such as the action of leaning forward in kind of a ‘bow’ without losing balance or eye contact. Nevertheless, it is capable of working in numerous scenarios and taking multiple roles, such as serving as a mobile information center, an item collection and delivery tool, a surveillance tool, research platform with regards to its open-source software interfaces, as well as a research platform for Human-Robot Interaction scenarios in relation to the multiple features of hardware modularity, agility, facial expressions, speech, facial and gesture recognition as mentioned previously.

Recent News

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, there were already major advances in real-world applications of urban robotics around the world as reflected by the rapid development of drones, driverless vehicles, and particularly service robots. A particular acceleration in this area has also certainly been due to the pandemic, especially where there is a need to maintain social distancing, combined with that of ensuring the continuity of care and giving a communicative type of support. Therefore, social robots have been increasingly explored both in a more futuristic and realistic yet ethically acceptable way as part of a method for substituting humans on the grounds of efficiency, reliability, and cost savings as well as extended capability in logistics, healthcare, and social services when it comes to the primary goal of reducing human-to-human contact in such a scenario where the application of robots can minimize the risk of disease transmission in urban pandemic control.

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