Gaan robots zorg en onderwijs redden?

Will robots save healthcare and education?

Impact 5 min. Joost Bijlsma

Teachers and nurses are protesting in large numbers about their ever-increasing workload. The corona crisis added to that. One possibility is that technology could reduce workload by taking on certain tasks. Are we going to replace teachers and nurses with robots?

Robots that teach, raise our children, or provide care – things we’ve all seen in science-fiction movies. Like in the Netflix film I Am Mother, for example, in which a robot brings up a baby until she reaches her teens. This leads to Earth being repopulated. The robot mother is an efficient and empathetic parent and teacher. Her daughter is just as empathetic. Everything appears to be going very well, until a second person suddenly arrives on the scene. The daughter is totally confused. Does she remain loyal to her robot mother, or does she choose the side of her own species? Well... we won’t spoil it for you. But it does make you wonder whether robots are suitable as full-time replacements for parents, teachers, or caregivers.

Can robots teach in classrooms?

It is unlikely that robots will be completely taking on the roles of parent, teacher, or caregiver any time soon. Nonetheless, Tilburg University Associate Professor Paul Vogt certainly sees opportunities. “I think we can use robots as smart digital tools that can assist teachers, for teaching children or young adults a second language, mathematics, or arithmetic, for example. Robots of this kind could help ease teachers’ workloads.” They could also provide additional schooling for children, for example, thereby helping individual children to catch up to their more advanced peers. This would mean teachers having to spend less time on those children who were falling behind.

Vogt knows what he is talking about: he has actually experimented with robots that teach, as part of the European L2tor (pronounced ‘el tutor’) project. They helped children aged between four and six learn a second language. Vogt, in other words, demonstrated that it is possible to learn something from a robot. The scientist is now committed to developing robust learning programs with robots.

One difficult aspect in relation to robots, believes Vogt, is that they are not very good at recognizing emotions or complex situations. “Robots have no feelings. However, this disadvantage does itself come with a benefit. After all, a teacher may get out of bed on the wrong side on a particular day, and be cranky as a result of stress or an annoying class. Robots, by contrast, have saint-like patience. If necessary, they can repeat their tasks endlessly.”

A robot’s bag of tricks is not that big

Paul Vogt

Paul Vogt

Vogt believes the technology – artificial intelligence in particular – needs further development, To be sufficiently attractive. The bond that children build up with a social robot is limited. “As a playmate in class, children like them. But a social robot’s bag of tricks is not that big, leading to repetitive behavior. As a result, the appeal of a robot often fades after a short period of time.”

Reducing administrative burdens

It is going to be some time before social robots will reduce the workload in education. However, this should not lead us to conclude that technology cannot help in this regard. Video lectures, for example, could lighten teachers’ workloads. Meanwhile, Robotic Process Automation software can assist the education sector by lessening administrative burdens. Such an application is more than welcome, given that the increased administrative workload is regarded as a major cause of the high levels of pressure in education.

Healthcare cannot manage without robots

The healthcare sector is facing the same problem. Here, too, doctors and nurses are bearing an ever-heavier workload because of the increase in administrative burdens. The sector is also experiencing labor-market shortages. According to Tilburg University PhD student Robbert Coenmans, the sense of urgency for transferring tasks to technology is greater in the healthcare sector than in any other. “The discussion in the sector is not so much governed by the fear that robots are going to take over the work – in fact, here we actually very much need technology to lighten the workload. And to make the work more appealing, so that more people want to work in healthcare and stay there,” he said during the Man-Machine & Values conference, organized by the university Impact Program.

Robbert Coenmans

How can we introduce technology in such a way that it really does help and is accepted?

Robbert Coenmans

Coenmans is examining in depth the question of how technology can be introduced in such a way that it really does help and is accepted. Achieving acceptance is especially tricky, as he himself has noticed. During a Robot Challenge for students in Brabant higher education, which he coordinated, he was able to take a look behind the scenes at several healthcare organizations. “There were a large number of healthcare robots simply gathering dust in closets.” Whether or not technology is accepted depends very much on whether people understand the added value it brings. It also depends on their willingness to get used to a different way of working.

Airbags for your hips and smart incontinence material

If there is one healthcare organization that has successfully applied technology, then it is TanteLouise in Bergen op Zoom. They are at the forefront of innovation in the healthcare sector. The driving force at the organization is Jan-Kees van Wijnen, who also spoke at Man-Machine & Values. The Healthcare Director at TanteLouise has a very clear source of motivation. “We are witnessing a huge increase in demand for healthcare as a result of the ageing population. All the while, the supply on the labor market is not keeping up. If we keep going as we are, there will be too few people to fill the vacancies. To maintain our current level of healthcare, we have to do things differently. I am absolutely convinced that technology will help us uphold the quality of healthcare."

A robot walker did not fulfill the criterion that the technology should be worth the investment

Van Wijnen is certainly not an advocate of technology for its own sake. With each innovation, he wonders whether it will help improve the quality of healthcare and lighten the workload. A third consideration is whether the technology is worth the investment. A robot walker is among the items to have fallen foul of this criterion. However, there are enough cases where technology is a success. At TanteLouise, for example, they use wearable GPS trackers, which allow patients with dementia to move around freely, within limited radiuses. They also use hip airbags that can absorb the impact from falls, as well as smart incontinence material.

The results of the various innovations are very impressive. The GPS trackers for patients with dementia have hugely enhanced their mobility, as well as their sense of freedom. “Thanks to this technology, we have been able to drastically reduce the amount of medication used. And our nursing staff now enjoy their work much more.” The hip airbag has had a similarly positive effect. “We have managed to reduce the number of fall-related incidents by almost 50%, from 55 to 29 per year. This prevents a lot of suffering among the residents and ensures that employees have more time that they can spend more usefully. Last but not least, the smart incontinence material has proved to be a real boon. According to Van Wijnen, it means that residents are changed at the right time, and only when necessary. As a result, the night shifts of their larger homes can manage with one fewer employee.

Robots for keeping watch

 The above innovations will certainly not be the last to prove their worth at TanteLouise. The organization is currently experimenting with a care robot, explains Van Wijnen. “We have many small-scale residential units, where eight people share a living room. This sometimes causes them to be restless, such as when a colleague is out of the room for a moment, to take one of the residents to their bedroom or the toilet, for example. Volunteers who can keep an eye on things are scarce, especially in the evenings. That’s why we came up with the idea of using a robot for that monitoring role. Perhaps they could entertain or distract the residents in such situations, or give off a signal to employees that something is wrong.” TanteLouise is now testing SARA, which stands for Social & Autonomous Robotic (health) Assistant. What it will absolutely not do is replace nursing staff. “The aim is for our staff to gain more enjoyment from their work here, thanks to SARA.” Van Wijnen is not yet sure whether the idea will succeed. “I am hopeful that the test will go well. And it’s definitely possible that SARA will make the work here easier.”

Van Wijnen believes it important to establish objectively – by means of scientific research, for example – whether technology is helping sufficiently. He also shares his knowledge on how to effectively introduce technology to the healthcare sector. This he does in partnership with Robbert Coenmans of Tilburg University.