For years, the U.S. has experienced a shortage of registered nurses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that while the number of nurses will increase by 19 percent by 2022, demand will grow faster than the supply, and that there will be over one million unfilled nursing jobs by then.
Those aged 65 or over comprise a bigger percentage of the U.S. population than ever, and by 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. population, or roughly 69 million people, will be senior citizens. While enrollment at nursing schools is up, these programs aren’t big enough to accept the number of applicants required to fill these positions.
So what’s the solution?
Japan is ahead of the curve when it comes to this trend, given that its elderly population is the highest of any country. Toyohashi University of Technology has developed Terapio, a robotic medical cart that can make hospital rounds, deliver medications and other items, and retrieve records. It follows a specific individual, such as a doctor or nurse, who can use it to record and access patient data. Terapio isn’t humanoid, but it does have expressive eyes that change shape and make it seem responsive. This type of robot will likely be one of the first to be implemented in hospitals because it has fairly minimal patient contact, works with staff, and has a benign appearance.
Robots like Terapio are also useful in nursing homes or other caretaking situations. A “Nursebot” called Pearl reminds patients to take their medicine, to use the bathroom or shower, and to get ready for appointments. Pearl’s designers have also focused on how to avoid the robot becoming an irritating nag while still performing a crucial function. They also want to avoid patients becoming dependent on Pearl, which could speed memory lapses through lack of practice and responsibility. Pearl’s programming allows for flexibility and responsiveness to situations, given that not everything happens exactly when and how it is scheduled. Pearl also keeps patients company, which is an increasingly important function.
Robots capable of social engagement help with loneliness as well as cognitive functioning, but the robot itself doesn’t have to engage directly—it can serve as an intermediary for human communication. Telepresence robots such as MantaroBot, Vgo, and Giraff can be controlled through a computer, smartphone, or tablet, allowing family members or doctors to remotely monitor patients or Skype them, often via a screen where the robot’s “face” would be. If you can’t get to the nursing home to visit grandma, you can use a telepresence robot to hang out with her. A 2016 study found that users had a “consistently positive attitude” about the Giraff robot’s ability to enhance communication and decrease feelings of loneliness.
A robot’s appearance affects its ability to successfully interact with humans, which is why the RIKEN-TRI Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research decided to develop a robotic nurse that looks like a huge teddy bear. RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance), also known as “Robear,” can help patients into and out of wheelchairs and beds with its strong, actuated arms and tactile sensors. Nurses help patients sit, stand, and walk dozens of times a day, which adds up to significant wear and tear. Robear can help alleviate that strain, while also being cute in a gigantic, non-cuddly ursine way. Robear is currently in the prototype phase—its team wants to improve its design and functionality, and bring down its price (~$200,000)—but Robear will work overtime without complaint and won’t file a worker’s comp claim from all that heavy lifting.
On the less cute and more creepy side, Actroid F skirts the edge of the uncanny valley. It’s so human-like that some patients may not know the difference, which may or may not be freakier than realizing a robot doppelganger is on night watch. This conversational robot companion has cameras in its eyes, which allow it to track patients and use appropriate facial expressions and body language in its interactions. During a month-long hospital trial, researchers asked 70 patients how they felt being around the robot and “only three or four said they didn’t like having it around.”
The National Science Foundation is allocating $1 million to the development of robot nurses, so you can expect to see more mechanized caretakers in hospitals and nursing homes. Granted, there are challenges here, ranging from patient comfort to the robots’ ability (or lack thereof) to make ethical decisions.
It’s important to note that robotic nurses don’t decide courses of treatment or make diagnoses (though robot doctors and surgeons may not be far off). Instead, they perform routine and arduous tasks, freeing nurses up to attend to patients with immediate needs. This is one industry where it seems the integration of robots will lead to collaboration, not replacement—that is, until patients decide there’s nothing they love more than giant robot bears.