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Robotics has been suggested as a way to help improve the quality of social care in the UK and to manage increasing pressures on services. New technology to support social care is expected to be a theme in the upcoming Green Paper on adult social care in England, and its potential has also been highlighted by the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, and in Northern Ireland.

Social care is part of a complex system of public and private services and encompasses both paid and unpaid care. The demand for, and cost of, social care is expected to rise as the population ages and needs become more complex. Social care also faces challenges from reduced funding and in recruiting and retaining staff.

Robotics is a broad field covering different aspects of the creation and use of robots. Robots can operate with varying levels of autonomy and may make use of artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning technologies. Many of the robots and robotic devices developed for social care appear to still be at the conceptual or design phase, and currently, there are technical limitations to the tasks that they can undertake. However, this may change with the increasing investment that is being made in robotics and several trials are already being undertaken in the social care sector. According to the National Audit Office, between 2012 and 2020, the UK Government has, or plans to, invest over £300 million in RAS research. The European Commission is also investing €700 million between 2014-2020 in partnership with the robotics industry and academia, which is expected to yield a total investment of €2.8 billion.

It has been suggested that robotics can provide social and cognitive assistance to care receivers, as well as physical assistance to both caregivers and care receivers. Evidence on the effectiveness of this technology shows some positive findings, although the newness of the technology means that current research is limited. Questions have also been raised over the ethical, social and regulatory challenges to its use.

Key points:

  • Technology is expected to be a theme in the Government’s upcoming policy paper on adult social care.
  • A wide range of robotic technologies can be used in social care from automated vacuum cleaners to robots resembling humans or animals. Few are currently used in social care and further research is needed to assess their impact in practice.
  • Robotics can provide physical, social, and cognitive assistance and a small number of studies report positive impacts on users’ mobility, mental health, and cognitive skills.
  • Using more robotics may save up to £6 billion through automating (mainly administrative) tasks, but there are concerns about affordability, and effects on the quality of care and staffing.
  • Ethical, legal, and regulatory issues include impacts on users’ autonomy and privacy and questions over the use and ownership of data.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Diane Buddery, Skills for Care*
  • Sebastian Conran, Consequential Robotics*
  • Dr Torbjørn Dahl, University of Plymouth/InstaDeep Ltd*
  • Department for Health and Social Care*
  • Professor Heather Draper, University of Warwick
  • Professor Peter Gore, University of Newcastle and ADL Smartcare Limited*
  • Government Office for Science*
  • Dr Julian Hough, Queen Mary University of London*
  • Professor James Ladyman, University of Bristol*
  • Dr Matthew Lariviere, University of Sheffield*
  • Local Government Association*
  • Sinead Mac Manus, Nesta*
  • NHS Digital*
  • Lydia Nicholas, Doteveryone*
  • Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service*
  • Dr Chris Papadopoulos, University of Bedfordshire*
  • Professor Tony Prescott, University of Sheffield*
  • Helena Quinn, The Alan Turing Institute
  • Scottish Government*
  • Madeleine Starr, Carers UK*
  • Professor Sarah Whatmore, University of Oxford
  • Welsh Government*
  • Professor Alan Winfield, University of West England
  • The Whiteley Foundation for Ageing Well*

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