In my discussions with DASSs about the role of care technology in their Strengths Based transformation programmes, the subject of robots comes up more and more often. In particular, we’ve talked about the cobot, or collaborative robot. One memorable example of a cobot is in the film Aliens. Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley is desperately trying to protect a child from the attentions of the alien. She climbs inside a giant cobot in the loading bay of the spacecraft and shouts “Get away from her ….” before proceeding to give the interloper a damn good thrashing.

Cobots, which can sometimes be referred to as exoskeletons, are machines designed to enhance a human’s abilities. They are common in mining, engineering and in contexts where people need to move heavy things. They carry out various functions, for example: protecting the human skeleton from harm, increasing lifting capacity with no effort (up to 180kg in some cases); enabling a person to work relentlessly without becoming physically tired and; substituting for a missing or atrophied limb.

What’s interesting is that some of the characteristics of a robot that worry people do not apply to the cobot. Typically there is no independent mind using AI, because the machine only functions when accompanied by a human. The intelligence is in the mind of the operator. Secondly, the challenge of making the contact points of a robot sensitive enough to interact safely with a person can be avoided. Cobots can be designed so any contact between the operator and a person is skin-to-skin. This realisation that a cobot cannot independently run amok and do harm is reassuring.

Does this mean the cobots are coming to social or healthcare soon? Well, they are already in use in the care sector in Japan, where Cyberdyne lease them to care homes. U.S. health insurers have stimulated interest among developers by using cobots to rehabilitate MSK injury patients. As is so often the case with innovation, economics is a driver of change. An insurer faced with paying a qualified OT to work hands-on with a rehab patient for several weeks may conclude that a reusable cobot, which can simultaneously protect and exercise the patient, is a more cost-effective option.

We may not have that exact economic incentive in the UK, but we do have a growing challenge with our domiciliary care workforce. Hampshire County Council is currently researching the potential for cobots in care, in part because 35% of its domiciliary care budget goes on double-up visits and this proportion is set to increase.

At the moment, when lifting and moving somebody who has difficulties with mobility, physical effort or decades-old technology (hoists and slings ) are deployed. This raises a number of questions. Does lifting and moving people constitute care? Is it economically sustainable to send two people out where one does the majority of the caring, with the second only there to help with lifting? Should we be putting the health of the carer at risk in this way? If that first carer could work alone with a cobot, would they establish a better connection with the cared-for person, working more creatively and with greater empathy and care? Could the second carer be somewhere else, supporting another vulnerable person?

Bill Gates famously said: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” Would I bet there will be cobots in use in social care in the UK within two years? Probably not.  Would I bet they will be common in social care in 10 years? Yes, I believe I would.

Steve Carefull (steve.carefull@paconsulting.com) is an Adult Social Care specialist and an expert in TECS with PA Consulting Group. ADASS is grateful for PA Consulting's sponsorship.