Is the Internet of Things the Future of Care?

By Sinéad Nolan

Last week The Guardian ran an article on how the care we need may come from the Internet of Things. The article was interesting and while I didn’t necessarily agree on all points, it was food for thought. It got me thinking about today’s society with our smart phones, self-service tills, contactless payment and Pokémon augmented reality and I realised from that we can deduce one thing at least: humans like technology.

We enjoy things that entertain or connect us, and being naturally lazy, anything that makes life easier and speeds up a process. We also seem to like anything that helps us do things we cannot do. It stands to reason that people in the stage of their life where they need care would elect for a technology that makes their life not only easier, but also more enjoyable, dignified and independent. Doesn’t it?

Perhaps at the moment the answer may be more complex than a simple yes or no. Speak to any group of people and you will find a divide – with many people still worried that this technology (the Internet of Things, assistive technology, care robots) will not make our lives more dignified and independent, but instead make us more susceptible to loneliness and even more removed from society.

Nevertheless, with new apps and assistive technology devices being created every day it seems we are on our way to a smart home generation. Monitors and sensors that link people’s data to their family, their GP and their care provider, ensure our relatives (and all of us one day) will soon be safe from potentially laying on the floor for hours after a fall.

It would be easy for the critical thinkers among us to reject the idea of a smart home outright, and perhaps we still have a long way to go until there is technology acceptance from everyone on this level. Realistically, how many old people want to be monitored 24/7 by their family, and potentially put their most intimate data at risk of exploitation to third parties.

The feeling of trepidation may come from those who look around and see how technology has not, in their opinion, made life happier or better. Those who do not think Facebook is a substitute for reading nor Pokémon a substitute for a cup of tea and a chat. There are those of the pre-Tinder generation who still long for the days of writing letters, looking out windows on trains, making eye contact with handsome strangers in bars, and of relatives who visited to see if you were alright.

Secrecy and privacy seem to always end up as a sacrifice to the god of safety, but hopefully for the older generation of the future we can strike a balance between the two – and who knows, smart homes might lead us into the future of our dreams.

Robots with Faces: Should Care Robots Emulate Humans?

By Sinéad Nolan


We are facing a care crisis of epic proportions. In less than 20 years’ time the number of over 65s in the UK, currently at 10 million, will have risen to 17 million. Yet estimates show we won’t have sufficient care workers to tend to this ageing population.
Assistive robots remain the anonymous shadow in the background of today’s not fit for purpose care system. While governments fund projects that focus on designing care robotics for the future (such as CHIRON) we must tread carefully when designing something to work with humans at their most vulnerable stage in life. The question many are now asking is: what should these assistive robots look like? Should they keep the form of a machine, or should they try and emulate a human?

Conflicting Ideas

Science fiction is full of robots-usurping-humans’ stories. If we were to believe Hollywood movies, machines are either out to eliminate us or to trick us into a state of surrender. While attitudes towards robots can vary greatly depending on their application, the care sector can be a very personal and thorny area indeed – especially when people start to consider the well-being of their own parents or grandparents. The word ‘care’ denotes an action or feeling performed by something capable of emotion. So is it ethical to design a machine that we feel could care for us, and should we risk eliciting an attachment to this machine in the way we might to a human caregiver?


Attachment Theory

One way to look at this issue is through Bowlby’s theory of attachment. Attachment does not have to be reciprocal.  One person may have an attachment to an individual which is not shared. The evolutionary theory suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive, and that the determinant of attachment is not food, but care and responsiveness. While Bowlby’s focus is mainly in between primary caregiver and baby – attachment patterns which come from childhood can repeat throughout our adult lives as we attach to new partners or friends. In fact, if we attach to a robot it might not be so bad, but we may bring all of our previous attachment issues with us. Which leads us to experience the robot not as an object or machine, but instead as a similar replica of our early caregivers in that might have been angry or rejecting, kind or smothering.




Humans developing emotional attachments to robots is well known, and well documented. If humans can form bonds with pets (who can reciprocate on some level and who often rely on us for food and affection), some might ask, why not robots?
It’s surprisingly easy for humans to endow robots with personalities. We are likely to anthropomorphise something if it appears to have many traits similar to those of humans, through human-like movements or physical features such as a face.
According to Rick Nauert PhD, ‘anthropomorphism carries many important implications. For example, thinking of a nonhuman entity in human ways renders it worthy of moral care and consideration. In addition, anthropomorphised entities become responsible for their own actions — that is, they become deserving of punishment and reward.’



So, if care robots are merely designed to do a job, is it healthy to attach to them, and what about if they need to be replaced? The Channel 4 series Humans covers this issue. One of the characters – Dr. George Millican, a retired artificial intelligence researcher and widower who suffers from an unknown disability forms a special bond with his outdated care robot named Odi. George refuses to let go even with his GP insisting it be recycled, and goes to many lengths to conceal the care robot (with whom he has formed a father/son like attachment with) from the authorities.

While fictitious, this idea is not entirely far-fetched. In the real world in 2013, researcher Julie Carpenter documented soldiers who developed strong emotional bonds with their robotic helpers, to the point of experiencing frustration, anger, and grief when the robots were destroyed on the battlefield. Some even held funerals for them.

Odi – Care robot in Channel 4 series ‘Humans’

Robot Friend

Currently on the market in Japan, is a fluffy robot seal companion named Paro. Used by the older generation, Paro does not help with the dishes, carry heavy items or administer medication. Instead, Paro offers companionship, responds to being stroked and behaves more like a pet. In a BBC article regarding the robot a Japanese care home resident Kazuo Nashimura, said: “Paro is my friend. I like it that he seems to understand human feelings.”

Paro robot companion, Japan

Which all begs the question – if we build something that seems to understand us, something that can talk to us and something that can help us with all of our tasks; a robot to share our ups and downs with, who can help us sift through our most poignant memories – is this be ethical and can we detach from what is real and what is not?


Art vs Science


Art v science.jpg

Art and science can often be thought of as opposing fields. However, here in the CHIRON team we like to get creative with science. Below, Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly, Head of Electronics and Computer Systems at Designability (and one of our project leads) shares her poem about assistive technology…

Where did the inspiration for the poem come from?

One of my recent projects was an Innovate UK Long Term Care Revolution funded project called Connecting Assistive Solutions to Aspirations. The aim was to develop personalised packages of innovative products to help people maintain enjoyable, independent lives in later life.

What was the projects aim?

The work included a review of available assistive technology and aimed to understand older people’s aspirations. The insights from the research helped to surface some startling issues. We found there was a mismatch between people’s aspirations and the aesthetics of the technology available.

When did it occur to you that art could help inspire science?

The problems are so complex that the breakthroughs needed require us to re-imagine and restructure how we think about the design of technology and its use. I received an invitation from the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol to present at one of their community events, it was accompanied by a manifesto which included a line: “Restore the arts as a core part of the National Curriculum by expanding the priority STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) to include both the Arts and a focus on high-tech crafting and making”. I thought this was brilliant. It inspired me to write something creative for their event, drawing on the findings and experiences of our research participants.

[Are you going my way?] Co-Design? Do you really?

by Praminda Caleb-Solly

Participate they say,
public consultations and co-design sessions
opportunities to have your say,
let’s deliberate,
but do they know what it takes,
for me to get down to the shops would be great

Arthritis and the cold,
my bills are killing me,
and the house might be sold.
You’re always telling me what I need,
In spite of the ‘nothing about me without me’ spiel

But what about that number 4 bus they cut?
And where is the warden when the heating is stuck?
They say they are making the system efficient,
Social care costs have now plunged well past the limit.
There’s a website to voice your objections to the changes,
But I can’t view it, I would if I could, but I can’t even locate it

You can send your views in the post said the chap on the phone,
I wrote ten pages, my patience worn down to the bone,
But then I tried to find the address to send it to,
no one knew,
Still haven’t found out, have you?

To be completed … by you the community