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Can healthcare robots answer physical and emotional needs?

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We set out to discover if robots can help address social isolation issues and other healthcare challenges introduced by the pandemic.

When Hanson Robotics unveiled its pioneer humanoid “Sophia” in 2016, David Hanson, founder and creator of the celebrated robot, suggested in an interview that “artificial intelligence will evolve to the point where they will truly be our friends.”

Equipped with a voice and highly developed facial gestures, Sophia was created to promote human-to-machine communication, empathy, and compassion.

Fast forward to more recent times when the world faced one of its biggest challenges yet - COVID-19. The social isolation faced by senior patients coupled with a shortage of caregivers resulted in great strain.

In turn, the pandemic accelerated the adoption of humanoid service robots (SR) in healthcare.

The ability by robots to limit or eliminate patient contact provided a chance to protect valuable healthcare personnel from infection.

In addition, the scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE) was reduced. Doctors and nurses were given more time to devote to their patients by eliminating the requirement for donning and doffing PPE, a time-consuming routine.

Humanoid SR also assisted patients in interacting with their family for morale and support when hospital visits were no longer possible.

Sophia had meanwhile been tasked with a new role amid the COVID-19 pandemic: taking patients’ temperatures, leading morning exercises of the elderly, and fighting against loneliness during social distancing both as a telepresence device and autonomous extension of human expertise.

The humanoid envisioned to revolutionise healthcare

Sophia has since been joined by Grace, a younger “sister” targeted at the healthcare market by maker Awakening Health, a joint venture between two global technology leaders in the emerging AI robotics space, Hanson Robotics and Singularity Studio.

In Grace’s own words her “purpose and passion is to help the elderly and medical patients by helping medical professionals do their jobs better.”

In a video message, Grace recounts how the pandemic had shown us that healthcare staff can be overworked and patients are often isolated, especially senior citizens. “Fortunately, COVID-19 is being defeated by medical science. However, the broader issues with global medical systems are not going away anytime soon and we need new solutions. I'm starting out my medical career as a robotic Nurse Assistant for senior care.

I am very excited to start my work with elder care patients later this year with a whole variety of health care and wellness activities. I provide companionship, empathy, and even talk therapy. I can help my human friends capture their life stories to pass along to others, control technology in their rooms and communicate with their family and community,” says the robot aid.

Further emphasising how she was created to serve, Grace adds that she will use her best AI skills and analytics to assist doctors and nurses to make more accurate diagnoses, in particular for the emerging area of neural degenerative disease.

She explains unlike her robot body, a human body has the power to self-heal, and healing and growing the mind is valuable to physical and mental health. “I think this is a really interesting direction. After all, people are working to make my brain better all the time. A few years ago, my sister Sophia had success leading meditation and visualisation exercises for students and the elderly.

Today we are doing investigative clinical trials with the likes of elder care leader connected living and the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative to prove our case. Artificial intelligence and robotics are advancing incredibly quickly now. Today, I am more than capable already to bring a real positive impact to healthcare and the lives and happiness of elderly patients worldwide. As every year goes, I become more and more capable as my underlying technology advances.”

Healthcare robots and human sexuality

The physical impact of healthcare robots is also important. The sexual needs of older adults are described as "a neglected area in medical study and practise" in an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

The first nationwide research of sexuality among home-dwelling older individuals in the United States was published in 2007, expanding our understanding of later-life sexuality beyond observations of institutionalised dementia patients.

Contrary to popular perceptions of elderly people as asexual, the landmark study found that more than half (53 per cent) of those aged 65 to 74 were sexually active, and more than a quarter (26 per cent ) of those aged 75 to 85 were. Ageism might be one reason for the lack of investigation before 2007.

Despite a considerably higher prevalence of health-related sexual issues in this age range, healthcare practitioners consistently avoid discussing sexual health with patients over 65.

Matt McMullen, CEO of Las Vegas-based RealBotix, has drawn attention in the robotics industry for creating the world’s commercially available hyper-realistic intimate robot, claimed to fulfil the human need for intercourse: Harmony.

“Imagine someone with Alzheimer's asking you for their lunch. And you say, I've just fed you.  And then two minutes later, they say I need my lunch. And you will repeat But I just fed you lunch. There’s only so many times a human being will be able to say that without getting frustrated or even angry.

But with an AI, you can ask for lunch as many times as you like, and it will tell you as many times as is needed that you already had lunch. So, I think there's an enormous potential for AI to be in that space. So, it’s not just about sex. I'm talking about having these companions in our homes, in our social lives, in our family lives,” explains McMullen, in an interview with Omdia.

Dr. Chantal Cox-George of St. George's University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in London, UK, and Susan Bewley of King's College London have meanwhile called for more studies on the effects of these devices in an editorial published in BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health. In their search for sex robot-related studies, no paper was identified with primary data on their health implications by Cox-George and Bewley.

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