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Will social robots be the caregivers of the future?

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Social robots capable of directly engaging with patients and encouraging both their physical and cognitive rehabilitation could be the caregivers of the future, writes Jerome Groopman, MD, in the New Yorker.

The story details ongoing research at the University of Southern California by Maja Mataric, PhD, to create independent droids capable of displaying empathy toward patients and performing the tasks of human caretakers.

During a number of small-scale trials, prototype robots have shown promise in working with stroke and Alzheimer’s patients and autistic children in rehabilitative tasks but a number of questions remain about the ethical and emotional impact of pairing patients with intelligent social robots:

What happens if a robot breaks down, or is taken away, after the person invests the robot with the qualities of a grandchild or a companion? What if a user begins to treat the robot like a slave, and then extends this destructive behavior to a family member or a friend? And, even if the machines are unaware of morality, robots must be prepared to act ethically. For example, if a patient being assisted suddenly needs emergency attention, what is the robot’s responsibility?

Mataric and researchers at continuing to answer these questions and others during current studies aimed at customizing robot behavior and comparing socially assistive robots with computers in tasks that enhance learning and may improve brain function.

Photo by swanksalot

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