How Robots May Someday Assist in Nursing Care

At CITEC, Professor Dr. Ipke Wachsmuth focuses on artificial intelligence

The 68-year-old conducts research at the Cluster of Excellence CITEC, particularly on ethical issues in robotics. This also encompasses the opportunities and limits of artificial intelligence, such as the question of whether in the future robots could help alleviate the nursing care crisis.

Robots in nursing care: With the assistance of the robot caregiver Care-O-bot (Fraunhofer IPA) the user transfers the measurement results. Photo: Fraunhofer IPA That he would one day work on robots for use in nursing care is not something that Ipke Wachsmuth would have thought. After all, 30 years ago, the now Emeritus professor spoke out vehemently against using robots in nursing homes. Today, however, he sees this differently. This has to do with personal experiences he has had over the past years.

“Many people are no longer so averse to a robot caregiver if it allows them to remain independent,” says Wachsmuth. With regard to this, he thinks of his own relatives: one of his aunts spent her last years in a nursing home, where she turned 92 years old but was bedridden in the end. “Nursing care always brings up questions about dignity,” says Wachsmuth, who conducts research at CITEC on the ethical questions of artificial intelligence.

Ultimately, his aunt relied on diapers. “I talked with her on the phone a lot,” says Wachsmuth. His aunt would say to him, “now they’ve taken my dignity away from me. I have to wait until someone comes and changes my diaper for me.” When it comes to experiences like this, Wachsmuth’s aunt is not alone. “I have often heard similar things being said,” says the 68-year old. For instance: “When I get old, I’d rather have a robot help me get dressed than let a caregiver who I don’t know see me naked.” Many people also do not want to become a burden to their family and might thus someday benefit from a robot who takes on these kinds of tasks, says Wachsmuth.

There is a shortage of caregivers and the elderly are also often lonely

It is clear that something in nursing care has to change: German society is growing older and older, and at the same time, the birth rate is dropping. As a result of this, the proportion of elderly people keeps increasing. Another problem is loneliness among the elderly. According to the Deutschen Zentrum für Altersfragen (German Centre of Gerontology), there are already approximately two million people above the age of 80 who are living alone. One in four elderly people only get a visit from friends or acquaintances once a month. Often, the nursing care service is their only contact with the outside world.

But how can we counter this trend, which will only continue to intensify in the future? “Unfortunately, it will only help a little if we bring in more young people or take in more refugees,” says Wachsmuth. “In the long-run, there’s no stopping the aging and shrinking of our society.”

What is to be done about this, and what role could robots play? For one, robots could be used in a very practical way to reduce caregivers’ workload, explains Wachsmuth. Robot caregivers could, for instance, transfer people to another bed, wash diapers, or give baths. But innovations in this field are even going beyond this: there are already robots being developed that simulate social behavior in a certain way.

Robots could also provide certain types of social interaction

Prof. Dr. Ipke Wachsmuth with Paro, the robot seal, photo: personal One such robot is Paro, a robotic seal originally from Japan who is now being used at more than 40 nursing care facilities throughout Germany. “Paro shows happiness when someone pats her or when she recognizes someone's face,” says Wachsmuth. “In video documentaries, I have seen how people with dementia suddenly opened up to Paro, and not only to her, but also to their fellow human beings, to whom they had previously remained closed off from.”

What would it mean, then, if robots not only took over pure nursing care activities, but also provided social contact, alleviating the loneliness experienced by some elderly people? Would that be ethical? Or would that not be a kind of deception? Is it ethical, for instance, if someone with dementia believes that someone is listening to him when that other one is really a robot without feelings and consciousness?

For Ipke Wachsmuth, the answer is yes, in some sense. After all, doctors and caregivers behaved similarly in some respects. “Part of acting professionally for them means that they do not let their patients’ suffering get to them, while still giving off an impression of caring,” he says. “After all, this is also ‘pretending as if’.” The question thus arises as to whether this is also ethically justifiable for a robot, if it helps people in need feel better.

A robot is on call 24 hours a day – a human caregiver only stops by for a short time

In any case, for Wachsmuth, robots offer an opportunity to respond to the nursing care crisis. “We should see this as an option for the future,” he says. What people want in a robot caregiver differs considerably. “Some may want the robot to only take over basic care tasks, while others also want to talk with the robot.”

Add to this the fact that human nursing caregivers generally only come once a day. Time is always short: perhaps a person can no longer eat alone, must be bathed or take medication under supervision. There is hardly any time left to leisurely talk with each other. A robot, however, would have time to talk 24 hours a day. This could also relieve relatives who provide care: they would no longer have to do the routine tasks and could instead spend more time talking with their family members and being close with them.

About Prof. Dr. Ipke Wachsmuth
Prof. Dr. Ipke Wachsmuth Emeritus Professor Dr. Ipke Wachsmuth taught artificial intelligence for 25 years at Bielefeld University, and now deals with the ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence and robots at the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC).

Prof. Dr. Ipke Wachsmuth, Bielefeld University
Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC)
Telephone: 0521 106-12129
Office: 0521 106-12153

Article author: Maria Berentzen