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This article was published on June 9, 2021

Grace the robot nurse can’t replace human caregivers

Sophia's 'sister' humanoid is another child of the pandemic

Grace the robot nurse can’t replace human caregivers
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC. Writer at Neural by TNW — Thomas covers AI in all its iterations. Likes Werner Herzog films and Arsenal FC.

The makers of Sophia the robot have unveiled another creepy-looking humanoid: Grace, a healthcare droid designed to help the elderly and isolated.

The prototype device uses AI to diagnose patients and a thermal camera to take their temperatures. It can also provide social stimulation and talk therapy, Reuters reports.

The robot could provide some support to overworked medical staff and people feeling lonely during the pandemic. But, at best, it will augment rather than replace human carers.

Social robots are already widely used in Japan — and some users clearly love them. Ultimately, they may become essential in an aging world with worker shortages, but critics fear they’ll be a cruel way to support the vulnerable.

They warn that robots are less emotionally satisfying than interaction with humans and that their long-term effects remain unknown. Some argue that the very concept of automated care is an oxymoron.

There are also concerns that social robots will reduce the user’s contact with human family, friends, and caregivers.

“One of the problems of aging is that it often results in a loss of social life and human contact,” said robotics experts Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey in their paper Granny and the Robots.

“The worry is that the use of robots in elder care for tasks such as lifting, carrying, or even cleaning, might result in a reduction in the amount of human social contact that an elderly person experiences.”

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Hanson Robotics, Grace’s maker, has given the droid the appearance of a woman with Asian features and a nurse’s uniform. Research suggests that anthropomorphizing robots can foster user trust and creates a more natural engagement. But it can also lead to overtrust and unrealistic perceptions of a robots’ capabilities.

Grace also needs to prove that it can live up to the hype. Hanson Robotics has frequently been accused of exaggerating the abilities of Sophia, which Facebook’s Chief AI Scientist once described as an “animatronic puppet.” If Grace is ever offered to my own vulnerable relatives, I’d want to know exactly how the strings are being pulled.

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