How humane is the UK’s plan to introduce robot companions in care homes?

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Some UK care homes are to deploy robots in an attempt to allay loneliness and boost mental health. The wheeled machines will “initiate rudimentary conversations, play residents’ favorite music, teach them languages, and offer practical help, including medicine reminders.” They are being introduced after an international trial found they reduced anxiety and loneliness.

These robots can hold basic conversations and be programmed to people’s interests. This is positive, but they are not a viable alternative to human interaction. It’s a sad state of affairs when robots are presented as solutions to human loneliness. Though intended as a way to fill in for carers in a “stretched social care system” rather than as a long-term solution, the use of robots is a slippery slope in removing the aged and infirm still further from the nerves and fibers of human interaction.

Robot companions have been trialled in the UK and Japan, from dogs that sit to attention to young women greeting isolated businessmen after a long day at work. They certainly serve a function in reminding people what it is to have companionship, helping with crude social interaction and providing cues to what it is to be human.

But robots cannot provide the altruism and compassion that should be at the core of a caring system. And they might even increase loneliness in the long term by reducing the actual contact people have with humans, and by increasing a sense of disconnect.

While there have been studies showing robotic pets can reduce loneliness, such research is generally based on a contrast with no interaction at all, rather than a comparison of human and robotic interaction.