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Can smart robots replace humans in the provision of care?

I recently read an article in the technology times that brings to mind the technological worlds search that one-day artificial intelligence in the shape of robots will replace human beings in providing care to people in need of care services.

South Korea finds itself in a similar situation to that of the UK in facing care-related problems in a rapidly aging society.

To tackle elderly care-related problems prompted by South Korea’s rapidly aging society, a state research body has developed artificial intelligence-based care robot technology. Smart robots based on massive datasets that can verbally communicate with old people and monitor their movements.

Care robots are normally designed to provide care for patients and old people at their homes or health facilities. The robots are able to communicate with a control tower to let their supervisor know about an abnormal situation. Care robots are based on AI and big data technology so that they can study and learn human behaviours and provide personalised care.

Rapidly aging society

South Korea has a rapidly aging society with more than 15 percent of the country’s population aged 65 or more in 2020. Government data shows that the number of old people will increase to account for more than 20 percent of the whole population by 2025.

Care robots

The Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI) said that its research team has developed a care robot installed with AI-based technologies including body movement recognition, hand-carrying item recognition, self-generated interactive robot behavior, and the recognition of the voices of old people.

The robot can verbally check to see if an old man takes his medication and adopts the right posture for stretching during fitness activities. Smart cameras detect abnormal situations or activities. The care robot can find a person who has fallen to the ground and monitor the daily movement of its master such as pouring water into a cup or using a vacuum cleaner to see if there are any uncommon movements.

In September, ETRI rolled out a two-month demonstration involving two old ladies living in Suwon, a southern satellite city of Seoul. A robot was deployed to each household to check the efficacy of technologies. In October, ETRI will provide useful care robot services for some 100 old people at a community health centre in the western port city of Incheon.

Living labs

ETRI have established “living labs,” which is a laboratory-like monitoring space at homes and offices, for 40 old people living in the central city of Daejeon to demonstrate care robot-related technologies. “This is the world’s first time a research team has carried out a long-term research project designed to develop and demonstrate care robots based on specialized data,” the institute said in a statement on October 7. “Through massive long-term demonstrations, we were finally able to acquire core technologies by repeatedly encountering and solving unexpected problems. We hope that our robot technology provides help for old people,” ETRI’s human-robot interactive technology lab head Kim Jae-hong was quoted as saying.

Recruitment challenges facing social care

Providers of social care services will not need reminding of the difficulties they face in recruiting people to work in social care. This is not a problem that can be laid solely at the door of Brexit. Care services have always had a problem in recruiting staff given the availability of higher wages for less demanding work elsewhere. We also need to recognise that fewer young people see work in social care as their first choice of employment. Recruitment and a career structure for social care is a challenge that is crying out for action.


Evidence from South Korea confirms that like the UK they face challenges in providing social care for a rapidly aging population. While I acknowledge we must address the problems of recruitment in care services and harness technologies to support people who need care. I cannot however at this stage in my career see a robot standing alongside a person in their own home monitoring the activities of daily living. I also find the notion of so called ‘living labs’ an anathema that is unlikely to gain any traction or acceptability in the UK.

Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy

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