“You can't replace touch with plastic”

Robotics can help those in need of care and improve quality of care work – but can't replace human attention. The Ethics Council believes that the focus must remain on the well-being of those in need of care.

Will we be cared for by "Pepper", "Paro" or "Zora" in the future? These are the fantasy names of robots, some of which are already in use. While technology-savvy Asia is mostly enthusiastic about the development of human-like care assistants and intensive research is also being carried out in Germany, fear and skepticism prevail in parts of the population in this country.

"The suspicion that machines would be used to provide assistance and care for sick or elderly people even more in line with economic efficiency and not human attention is imposing itself and destroys confidence in the possibility and use of this technology," complained the chairman of the German Ethics Council, Peter Dabrock, in Berlin on Tuesday.

"Humanity and technology don't have to be opposites"

The committee wanted to counter this view, which is oriented toward deficits, with another view: The statement "Robotics for good care" does not want to conceal the dangers, but first orient itself to the possibilities. "Humanity and technology don't have to be contradictory," says Dabrock, as long as robotics serves people or the well-being of those in need of care. For this to happen, the Ethics Council presented a series of recommendations in a 60-page statement.

According to the report, digitization, artificial intelligence and robotics should be used consciously in an aging society. There are currently around 3.4 million people in need of care in Germany. Their number is projected to grow to 5.3 million by 2050. And there is already talk of a nursing crisis.

According to the Ethics Council, robotics cannot and should not replace human caregivers in the future. That's why the panel avoids the word "care robot". Robotics should continue to have only a supplementary function, she said. In this sense, however, the experts are convinced that the church can "make a valuable contribution to improving the quality of life of people in need of care and the quality of work in the care sector.

This refers, for example, to "assistance robots" that help people in need of care with food intake or personal hygiene, or provide medication or laundry utensils. So-called exoskeletons can help the infirm walk. Service robots clean or carry people.

Robotics can support longer independence for those in need of care, train physical and cognitive skills, and promote rehabilitation, ethics council notes positively. Remote monitoring of bodily functions such as pulse, blood glucose levels or blood prere can provide rapid assistance in an emergency, for example in the event of a fall.

Positive effect on dementia patients

For the Berlin gerontologist and co-author of the report, Adelheid Kuhlmey, all of this is part of the "well-being" of those in need of care.

For them, the essential task of good nursing care is also that it "enables and promotes close interpersonal relationships". But how are so-called accompanying robots to be evaluated here?? Machien, which resemble dogs, seal babies or cats and react to touch and sounds with the help of sensors and are supposed to fulfill above all communicative and emotional needs?

Their positive effect on dementia patients is now undisputed: they brighten the mood, help reduce stress and overcome feelings of loneliness. Paro", the robot companion, has long been part of the care provided at the Sankt Hedwig Hospital in Berlin.

The Ethics Council also acknowledges this positive effect. It would be questionable, however, "if people in need of care were to satisfy social and emotional needs in the future primarily by dealing with companion robots," which merely simulate feelings, Kuhlmey said. Ethicists warn of social isolation if one-sided reliance were placed on robots. At the same time, the study emphasizes that the effects of robot technology on nursing have not yet been scientifically researched to any great extent. Kuhlmey sums up the opportunities and risks with a quote from a nurse: "I'm not against technology, but you can't replace touch with plastic."

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