Every few months, there is an article somewhere in the press getting excited about the potential for robots in social care. The latest is in the New Statesman: Automated assistance: how robots are changing social care. Samir Jeraj cites two examples of tech helping people to connect with services and notes the ethical challenges: Clenton Farquharson, who employs his own personal assistants and is Chair of the Think Local Act Personal programme for transforming social care, argues for “a rights-based approach”. “As well as accessibility and usability, manufacturers and providers should also be mindful of making assumptions about users’ needs… particularly for marginalised groups” who are “often not around the table”.
There is a long history of looking for quick fixes for the slow moving tragedy which is our current social care system. The National Audit Office today says that despite “substantial efforts from those across the sector to deliver these essential services in such challenging circumstances,” longstanding problems mean that “levels of unpaid care remain high, too many adults have unmet needs and forecasts predict growing demand for care. The lack of a long-term vision for care and short-term funding has hampered local authorities’ ability to innovate and plan for the long term, and constrained investment in accommodation and much-needed workforce development. In a vast and diverse social care market, the current accountability and oversight arrangements do not work.”
Below the attention-grabbing headline, the New Statesman article makes it clear that, in reality, robots are not currently changing social care. It gives two or three examples, the first of which is actually about tech connecting a sick school pupil to his lessons pre-pandemic, and then one small experiment using artificial intelligence to ‘chat’ to lonely care home residents about their interests, and an interesting academic research programme: the National Robotarium.
I’ve nothing against any of this: we are part of a government-backed consortium which is exploring how to combine machine learning, geospatial data mapping and grassroots community action using the Tribe application, and I feel hugely excited by the potential to combine tech and big data with community initiatives that until recently have been entirely offline and analogue.
It is worth, however, thinking hard about what problems we are trying to fix with technology. Many of the innovations grouped under the ‘robotics’ heading are more to do with AI-assisted social interaction than machines providing practical help. I am sure it is possible to create tech which will interact with isolated people in a life-like enough fashion to alleviate some of their loneliness. But why would we want to? As strengths-based models like Homeshare demonstrate, the best solution to a person’s loneliness, is to find another person who is either lonely themselves, or at least has spare social energy. Our Homeshare and Shared Lives teams and national networks are already exploring how tech can target, speed up and scale up those connections. As the NAO found, austerity hit social care hard, but as we’ve seen during the pandemic, there is now more than ever an abundance of caring and social capacity out there in our communities. The New Statesman reports that £34m is being invested in robotics research. When it arrives, the long-awaited social care Green Paper will need to demonstrate that level of ambition in scaling up the community-based innovations we already have in our sector: let’s get as excited about investing in people as we do about investing in robots.