The rise of robots in the well-being industry faces prejudice

According to a current study at Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), the introduction of service robots in well-being and health services is dividing opinions. Social discourse is often guided by a lack of information and experience. Now, researchers are producing new, empirical information for decision-makers.

According to the study, the elderly usually have a positive attitude towards robots, whereas nursing staff may have doubts.

"There is a very black-and-white mindset in nursing work regarding the use of robotics. Some are very excited about it and see it as an opportunity to improve services while maintaining their own professional development. On the other hand, some staff find robotics to be a modern ‘folly', are afraid of losing their jobs or are concerned about the weakening quality of the humane care received by the customers," says Professor Helinä Melkas, head of the research project.

However, the negative attitude of nursing staff often changes when the capabilities of the robot are proven by the experiences of the elderly.

"The deployment of robotics applies to the entire work community. The employees need time to learn how to use it, figure out how to integrate it to their work community and find the tasks for which it is most convenient. It is also important to consider some ethical issues in advance, so that the staff knows how to talk about the robot with people suffering from memory disorders and how to explain what it is and what it does."

The robots used in well-being and health services can be divided into rehabilitation devices and prostheses, as well as medical, institutional and personal assisting robots. Discourse on robots is made difficult by the fact that there are so many different robots. According to Melkas, robots in nursing work alone may vary from small robots resembling stuffed toys to large walking robots used as a physiotherapy tool in the rehabilitation of stroke patients, for example.

In the current study, the term "service robots" is mostly used to refer to personal, assisting nursing robots. The Lahti experiment utilized a Zora humanoid robot named Ilona. Ilona's task was to assist nursing work. The nursing and physiotherapy students of Lahti University of Applied Sciences produced various contents, such as games and exercise instructions, for the Ilona robot, and provided assistance in the robot's deployment. Ilona served as an instructor in rehabilitative sessions, physical exercises and discussions for the customer group, and also played music. A nurse attended each session led by the robot.

"The elderly found Ilona to be a pleasant and refreshing companion that brought some variation to their everyday life. Of course, there were those who did not care for the robot. Naturally, they were allowed to leave those types of situations," explains Melkas.

The study also included an extensive survey sent to all MPs, ministries, the municipalities and hospital districts as well as businesses and service providers operating in the field of robotics or in the service industry. The survey helped examine the attitudes of various operators in the field, as well as the industries and manners in which robots could be utilized. The study received a particularly large number of responses from municipalities.

"The respondents had a positive attitude towards using robots in well-being services. The majority did not have personal experiences with robots, but the mental images have become increasingly positive over the past few years as information has spread through the media, for instance. Robots aren't a threat; they create opportunities."

The Robots and the future of welfare services (ROSE) project is one of the sixteen research consortium projects of the Strategic Research Council (SRC). Their purpose is to examine the key questions of social decision-making and support Finnish decision-making with current, scientific information. In addition to LUT, the projects are supported by Aalto University, University of Tampere, Tampere University of Technology, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Laurea University of Applied Sciences. A roadmap for nursing robotics in Finland was recently drafted as part of the project.

Further information:

Helinä Melkas, Professor, helina.melkas(at), +358 40 588 1400

Roadmap for nursing robotics in Finland: