Where should we use robots in care services?


Aged and disability care suffers a skills and capability shortfall, but we lack a deep understanding of the implications of filling these gaps with robots. Australian researchers are exploring what practical limitations there should be on robots in care roles and what role of government’s stewardship in shaping these roles.

In policy circles it is somewhat of a given that we are on the brink of experiencing significant changes to our entire spectrum of care services.  The arguments are familiar and well-rehearsed. In adult services we have greater numbers of individuals demanding care services and these groups are becoming older, with higher levels of disability and chronic illness and enhanced expectations about the quality of services that should be delivered.  In education, reform is being driven by a need to develop a workforce skilled for the future and for educational organisations to take greater accountability for educational attainment. Collectively these drivers will mean that we see significant changes to public service organisations and their workforces.

Over the coming years we will see the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Aged Care reforms and in education the introduction of new technologies as teaching tools, to augment and assist teachers and also to equip students to navigate the workplace of the future. It is anticipated that these will create significant changes in how care services are designed and delivered, and many of these reform processes are also demonstrating some significant chasms. Several commentators have noted there are substantial workforce gaps in both the numbers of individuals available and the types of skills and capabilities possessed.

One potential solution to these twin demand and supply-side pressures is technological in nature and takes the form of robotics. Other countries have already embraced these technologies in a significant way. Japan is a case in point. Faced with both a shrinking and ageing population, estimates suggest more than 1 million more care workers will be required by 2025. Robots have been seen as one part of the solution, serving some manual tasks and also a form of social interaction.

In schools, we have seen increasing numbers of children with disabilities enter mainstream education. Robots have been increasingly used for a variety of purposes to promote inclusion and support learning, from robots facilitating a telepresence for children unable to attend school to robot assistants supporting children with developmental disorders. The launch of Tech Schools in Victoria is an active attempt to create a future workforce skilled in robotics, coding and other areas of high technology.

Androids fulfil all care functions in Issac Asimov’s sci-fi vision (Bicentennial Man, 1999).

Although there is a burgeoning literature on the topic of robots in care settings, the majority of this commentary and evidence tends to revolve around their technical efficacy, their acceptability to consumers, or the legal ramifications of such innovations. Yet, there remains is a serious lack of attention within the public policy and public management to the actual implementation of robots in care settings. As such, we lack a deep understanding of the implications of these changes and what the role of government is in relation to stewarding technological innovation.

Against this background, a new study is being launched by the Public Service Research Group at the University of New South Wales, Canberra in partnership with the University of Melbourne and Harvard University to explore the roles that robots should and, even more critically, should not play in care delivery and the role that government has as a steward in shaping these roles.

This exploratory project aims to fill at least part of this gap, examining an area that is of current and future interest to governments in Australia and New Zealand. The research will explore the implementation of robots in care services considering issues relevant to the roles that robots and government should play in this context.  Key research questions include:

  • What roles should robots play in care settings?
  • What roles should robots not fulfil in care settings and should remain the preserve of services delivered by humans?
  • What role should different levels of government play in stewarding this disruptive technology (e.g. regulation, funding, management)?
  • What might be some of the implications of the implementation of this disruptive technology (e.g. impacts on workforce, education etc.).

The research will comprise interviews across four jurisdictions in Australia and New Zealand and will seek to speak with individuals who have been involved in the introduction of robots, but also those who have a role in overseeing key care areas that may see a future application of these technologies. These four case sites will examine the use of robots in a range of care settings, e.g. aged care, disability, education. The research team are currently recruiting for case study sites who have experience and interest in one or more of these areas.

If you are interested in being involved in this research and would like to inform the recommendations about the role of robots in care services and the role that government has as a steward in shaping these roles, please contact Helen Dickinson (h.dickinson@adfa.edu.au) for further detail.

Helen Dickinson, Public Service Research Group, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Catherine Smith, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne