From Wired: Robot Nurses Are Less Weird When They Don’t Talk.
Growing up, I always thought Rosie from the Jetsons was the coolest thing ever: She spoke, she sassed, she cleaned–absolutely awesome. Well, with all the advancements in robotics we’ve not only hit the Rosie level, we’ve surpassed it. Robots are now being used to assist nurses, which is definitely an interesting concept. As the author of the article points out, the general population knows robots through assembly lines and automated processes, and also through popular media. (Skynet, anyone?) So, the concept of using robots in a healthcare environment is quite a jump.
Now, from a technical standpoint, this is great. The fact that robots have advanced to a point where researchers are ready to try them out in a healthcare environment is amazing. And to think about the work that could be done studying how medical staff learns to work with a robotic addition to their team screams publication.
However, what about patients? Well, the cited article actually relates the results of a study on patient acceptance of a robotic nurse. There were 2 conditions in this study worth noting: Speaking robot nurse, and silent robot nurse. In both conditions, participants were to receive a soothing stroke simulating a gentle cleaning gesture that would typically be performed by a real nurse. The research team hypothesized that participants would be more accepting of the robot nurse when it spoke to them, informing them of its intent to clean them. Interestingly, the opposite was true: Participants were less unsettled by the robot nurse when it DIDN’T speak to them.
I have to admit, from my perspective I’m actually surprised there was a difference between scenarios. A healthcare setting is very intimate and occasionally emotionally charged, so it is necessary for there to be some level of trust between patient and caregiver if the patient is to even let the medical staff perform their duties. This trust is built not only on regard for expertise, but also on empathy. Robots are not only poorly understood by the general public, but they aren’t exactly known for their ability to emotionally bond with humans. Hence, my surprise.
That being said, I do think there is a definite chance for integrating robots into healthcare at such a personal level. I imagine that there actually is a group of patients out there who will naturally find such a thing curious and exciting and will be open to having a robot nurse assist during a healthcare visit. And of course as such incorporation becomes more and more common, it will seem more and more normal for younger patients that robots are a part of their visits to a hospital or clinic. I can see this be a problematic thing for the elderly, the paranoid, the technophobe, and the poorly educated. (For reasons I’m sure we can all intuit from my descriptions.)
It will be interesting to me to see how the acceptance level changes as the robots become more anthropomorphic. If the results of this study can be replicated by other researchers, then I would venture to say that the more human-like these robot nurses begin to look, the creepier it will seem if there are any robot ‘tells’ signaling to patients that their nurse is made of metal. So by my prediction, the success of a robot in the healthcare setting–at least in terms of being accepted by patients–is an all or nothing prospect. The robot will have to appear completely human in form, response, and voice or patients will fully reject it.
Wonder what anyone else thinks about this…