Care and the brave new world its embracing

Blog post 18 October 2017

Pepper is a model social care employee. He can speak 12 languages fluently, is up with popular culture – dances Gangnam Style – and can quickly perceive the emotions of those to whom he speaks.

Pepper is the latest staff member of Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, but he’s not like any other of the team there. Pepper is a robot.

Well, we knew it would only be a matter of time . . . yes, Pepper, developed by Japanese firm Softbanks, is the first robot of its (or should I say ‘his’) type to be employed in such a council role.

Initially, the council hopes that Pepper will be used for community engagement, “awareness raising”, and to make reminiscence activities happen. Already, the council is developing new memory games for this humanoid.

Already social care has a raft of robotic helps that are successfully used daily.

It’s a brave step for this council to take and I’m certain there will be many eyes watching. I’m all for technology helping out where it can, but like Sharon Houlden, director of adult social care at Southend, I’m not advocating humanoid robots could ever take the place of a commissioned service.

In Japan, Pepper’s ‘relatives’ are becoming more and more a part of social care. There are robots with three arms and 24 fingers that can wash hair and massage heads and remind their charges they are due medication.

They are sold for about £17,500 – thousands of them – and interact with service users. Quite how you build a relationship with a machine, I’m not sure, but I’m sure it must happen.

It seems only yesterday, but in January this year ‘Peppers’ were being unveiled by researchers from Middlesex University as a help to solving the social care crisis.

The potential for Pepper is immense, but there’s a huge digital divide to overcome, particularly between the old and young.

There’s kind of novelty appeal for some, but abject horror for others. I’d suggest it will be a long time before the UK care market matches the popularity of the humanoid robot opportunities in Japan – but I’m sure it will come (probably not on my watch).

Perhaps I should have watched more Star Wars . .