The human touch: can carebots replace human empathy and compassion?

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(16 February 2024) Carebots – we are told – are increasingly used in elderly care homes.

We are on the cusp of an automation revolution that promises to revolutionise the way we provide support and companionship to seniors. Technology companies view Europe’s ageing population as a high impact area for robotics researchThis is increasingly reflected in research budgets.The EU’s flagship research program contributes €1.3 billion to a public-private partnership (PPP) into AI, data and robotics, in addition to supporting a number of discrete projects relevant to promoting robotics in the care sector.

But can robots feel a sense of responsibility and commitment? Can they offer sympathy, compassion and kindness? Can they tell if someone is feeling lonely, sad, fearful or depressed? Can robots be caring?

A new report commissioned by EPSU - 'Carebots' and the care crisis - explores questions of how technology is affecting elderly care homes and what it means for care work now and in the future.

‘Caring’ is a multifaceted concept that encompasses a range of emotions, actions, and behaviours aimed at promoting the well-being, comfort, and support of others. It involves a genuine concern for the welfare of individuals and manifests in various ways, including empathy, compassion, and kindness. Dehumanising care and the loss of human interaction poses not only ethical issues in respect to the privacy and comfort of elderly, but also has negative consequences for care workers who benefit from the personal interaction with those in their care. Maintaining a human connection gives meaning to care work even in the most over-burdened and stressful situations. The loss of an element of human interaction amid changes in job roles and workplace dynamic compounds stress and burnout.

And the rapid transformation of AI technologies gives rise to complex issues of digital rightsHow is data created and collected in the course of caring activities and who has access to it? Transparency in relation to the collection and protection of personal data is important, not only in relation to compliance with GDPR, but also to ensure safety and mitigate risks when dealing with vulnerable individuals. Human oversight over essential life-supporting care functions is essential to ensuring quality care. Advanced sensors and AI models can monitor health metrics, detect emergencies, and provide timely alerts, but these are tools that require human oversight.

The well-being, autonomy, and dignity of elderly and vulnerable individuals must be at the centre of designs and implementation of all technological innovations. Efforts should be focused on enhancing and supporting human-centered care practices within long-term care settings that ensure the optimum situation for all.

Read the full report here.

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