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We care For You

Paul Kitcatt

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The use of care bots is controversial, but I would have welcomed robotic help for my elderly mother, says Paul Kitcatt.

WOULD you let a robot care for an ageing parent? That question occurred to me while visiting my mother in a care home just before she died. It wasn't so much that the care she was getting from humans was bad, but it was inconsistent, and insufficient.

You can do all the mental exercises possible, but what really keeps the brain sharp is company - preferably intelligent and interesting. Care home staff can't offer enough of that because there are too few of them. It's not their fault. The cost of providing such attention, which might help keep dementia at bay, is too great.

This got me thinking about the use of robots in care homes, which prompted me to write a novel about the rise of this technology in such settings.

Japan has led on the use of care robots for years, often for social interaction. Now other countries are catching on. Last week came news that Pepper, a companion robot from Japan, is being tried out in the UK. Capable of reacting to emotions, it is being deployed in a coastal area near London.

Reaction was mixed. Critics objected to spending money on Pepper on many grounds. One is that it is rather a basic robot. But look at the first mobile phones, and see how far they have come.

This technology will improve. Perhaps the next generation will offer basic medical care. After all, AI provides better diagnosis in some fields than human doctors, and surgeons accept that robots can outperform them at certain operations.

As I explored the idea of care robots, I looked even further forward, positing a human-like robot indistinguishable from us. This is where we are going. Pepper's descendants will be convincing synthetic humans. Of course, that creates even bigger dilemmas. Could an AI brain have consciousness? What are the implications of an artificial intelligence superior to ours? Those questions need addressing, as getting it wrong may not end well for us.

For now though, the other big objection to the use of companion robots is that it is a misguided way to patch up a problem in modern societies: that at a personal level we fail to provide care to others, so are now delegating the job to AI.

There is truth in that. We should care more. Not just about the old, but also about each other, about life on Earth, about the planet.

On balance though, I can't help wondering why anyone would object to a practical solution to the difficulty of providing sufficient care. If a robot like Pepper can help, surely it is an improvement.

So to answer my opening question, I would have welcomed a robot to care for my mother, alongside humans. She loved modern life, tech and innovation, would have enjoyed meeting Pepper and would have made it her business to outwit it.

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