Implementing Care Robots in Japan: Unraveling Complexity in Social Settings

27.02.2024 | Christian Kreutz
Eldery and robot watching a sunset
Image by ChatGPT

As populations decrease in various countries, such as Europe, China, and Japan, the latter has taken the lead in implementing robots for basic tasks to alleviate their care crisis. Ethnographer James Wright conducted a study called "Are Robots the Solution to Japan's Care Crisis?" based on his book "Robot's Won't Save Japan." In this research, Dr. Wright delves into the emotional and social consequences of introducing robots into a care setting, specifically how it might impact relationships between residents and staff members. He also considers the potential for robots to alter these dynamics.

One of the most frequently cited benefits of using robots in care is their potential impact on the quality of care. By providing more frequent and thorough monitoring of patients' health, assisting with physical tasks and even acting as a constant companion, robots could significantly improve the overall quality of care. In addition, by performing routine and repetitive tasks, robots would free up human caregivers to focus on personal interaction and emotional support that requires empathy and connection. So much for the theory. For example, automating tasks such as temperature monitoring has been shown to save 26% of nurses' time, according to this study.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to overlook the primary motivation for implementing robots in the care industry: cost and time efficiency. But as Wright pointed out, the current expenses of these robots do not lend themselves to achieving the desired cost-saving effect. More importantly, he stressed the significance of understanding that these machines cannot substitute for the vital social interactions needed for patients' emotional well-being. In his observations, people's responses to robots range from fear and suspicion to acceptance and even forming emotional attachments. Ultimately, the success of incorporating robot interaction into caregiving depends on how the care givers implement and communicate this technology, as well as the level of curiosity and interest from elderly individuals. This mirrors a similar pattern with artificial intelligence, where some eagerly embrace new technologies while others are hesitant or even fearful of utilizing them. For more on this topic, see this global survey post about trust in AI.

Challenges with robots in elderly care

While conducting his research and conducting interviews, Dr. Wright also discovered unforeseen difficulties that arose with the use of robots in care facilities. One such challenge was the added workload for care staff, who now had to not only oversee the robots but also handle tasks such as maintenance and operation. In some cases, it was actually more time-consuming and labor-intensive to utilize the robots compared to simply doing the job themselves. Additionally, the introduction of robots can change traditional roles and responsibilities of caregivers, potentially leading to a shift in required skills and job descriptions. In the worst case scenario, caregivers may even become de-skilled through their reliance on robots.

Mental health and therapeutic bots

Another concept being explored is the use of mental health chatbots to offer customized care by observing and adjusting to the specific needs and preferences of each resident. While this approach has coined the term "designing algorithmic care," it's crucial to recognize that this notion may inadvertently give the false impression that all aspects of social care can be technically solved through algorithms. This is a misleading conclusion, as the complexity of human emotions and interactions cannot be fully encapsulated by technology. For instance, therapeutic robots like pet robots are being used to offer emotional comfort and stimulation, which can greatly benefit residents with dementia or those experiencing loneliness. In certain situations, communicating with a machine can be more effective, as shown by a recent study highlighting the advantages of using a therapeutic chatbot. This allows individuals to discuss sensitive topics without fear of judgment.

The study focused on how a therapeutic chatbot could improve access to therapy, particularly for minority groups. With data from 129,400 individuals, results showed a 15% increase in self-referrals with the use of the chatbot, compared to only 6% without it. The most significant improvements were seen among non-binary individuals, with a 179% increase in self-referrals, and positive changes were also noted among LGBTQ+ individuals and ethnic minorities. These findings highlight the potential of therapeutic chatbots in addressing mental health disparities and providing accessible support for diverse populations.

Dr. Wright's research demonstrates, as is often the case with technological advancements, how heavily it relies on the specific context and the needs of end users. This is especially important when implementing solutions for elderly care, as they should not be solely based on cost-benefit analyses.