We asked Birgit Gebhardt, former CEO of the Trendbüro (English: Trend Bureau), trend expert and advisor

Blessing or curse? Using robots in the healthcare sector


In the distant future? – But today already a reality: robot caregivers are designed to make the daily tasks of healthcare workers easier. Today these types of helpers are already being used in Japan. They lift people in need of care out of their beds, play cards with them or cuddle with dementia patients.

Photo: Birgit Gebhardt

Birgit Gebhardt; © Stephanie Brinkkoetter

REHACARE.com asked trend expert Birgit Gebhardt whether people who need care actually want to be taken care of by robots and whether it would be conceivable for them to replace human caregivers entirely in the future.

Ms. Gebhardt, what is already possible in caregiving today by using robots?

Birgit Gebhardt: Robots are already present in hospitals as delivery vehicles that bring medications or utensils to nursing staff on the different wards for example.The technology is still not mature enough for the healthcare sector in terms of direct human touch but there are already some promising approaches: robots are trained to lift people; a burly-looking helper bot in Japan already manages to do this with dolls.Contact with sensitive body parts, like soft touches, avoiding pinching or skin pulling and making the distinction between skin folds and bed creases is still a problem. There are some elastic robots available that are still being tested for their elasticity, feedback, balance and strength with rotary hammers.

Companies are also working on artificial muscles that mimic human body functions in their appearance, function and feel. The researchers observe what they can learn from nature and humans and translate this into specialized operations. There are currently many special robots in development, ranging from exoskeletons that are designed to support our bodily functions like a second static skin to the Atlas Robot that is even able to safely skate on ice.

Photo: retiree holds the seal "Paro"

The seal "Paro" was developed in Japan. You can pet it; © Messe Düsseldorf

Do people who need care actually want to be taken care of by robots?

Gebhardt: According to a recent Forsa survey, 60 percent of Germans are already able to envision this. I was surprised by this finding but it reveals a very pragmatic point of view: given the number of people who will need care in the future, we won’t be able to afford today’s standard of care in the future. That means, many people will actually not have a choice but will simply be running the numbers. The advantage of a care robot is the promise of making the patient more independent from others because the persons able to instruct the robot based on his needs and let the robot adapt to his rhythm of life. It also enables the robot’s owner to stay longer in their familiar surroundings. 

These questions also need to consider the future reality. We will have self-driving cars that will ensure our mobility even at an old age. Our everyday life and individual preferences will be determined by intelligent surroundings because our data profiles on the Internet of Things will be constantly communicating with our individual context. We will no longer be afraid of cameras because there is no human being standing behind them and watching us but rather an algorithm that detects when our plan or rhythm gets out of control and then starts to communicate.

Photo: physician operates a roboter, patient lays in bed

The "Care-O-bot" shall assist physicians and patients; © Phoenix Design

Do you believe, robots can replace real-life people caregivers in the future?

Gebhardt: I think the labor division between human and robotic caregivers will be a far more interesting aspect. Over the next ten years, we are going to learn how this interaction between humans and machines, sensors and software will evolve. Supposedly 50 percent of jobs will be eliminated by automation and robotization – but new ones will also be created. In studies by the Oxford University or IngDiBa that predict this, the direct contact with people that addresses the psyche or touch is typically ignored as a robot activity. Yet I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Even if lifting, washing and changing linens are currently still difficult tasks and draw everyone’s attention at the moment, I think the idea of entertaining, small robot friends like "Paro" the robotic seal or the Bavarian adaptation "just a cat" is actually very effective. These types of helpers provide more touch, evoke emotion and empathy as well as stimulate cognitive activity with people in need of care. In my book "2037 – Unser Alltag in der Zukunft" (English: 2037 – Our everyday life in the future), I attempted to describe this type of "Care-O-bot" scenario.

What does inclusion mean to you?

Gebhardt: In this context, it could also mean not to reject or exclude robots based on preconceptions. The Fraunhofer Institute predicts that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence by as early as the year 2029. It would really be foolish if we don’t find ways by then to where all parties involved can benefit from this achievement and where we are once again able to ensure and pay for our care in the future.

Foto: Lorraine Dindas; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Lorraine Dindas
(translated by Elena O'Meara)