The Uncanny Valley of Healthcare

If Robots Are Going to Transform Patient Care, They Can’t Appear Too Human

September 30, 2014

Healthcare Strategist, NBBJ


I fully expect that at some point in my life I will be cared for by a robot.

I am not talking about human-guided machines like the da Vinci surgery tool. That is not a robot. It is, in principle, the same as that arcade machine in which you guide a mechanical grabber to get a stuffed animal. da Vinci needs a human operator, robots do not.

No, I’m talking about something like RIBA, the Japanese robot bear, designed to carry elderly patients to and fro. Or Pepper, an emotionally responsive robot or “emotibot” — you can just imagine its uses in geriatrics and behavioral health as a companion and comforter, replacing alert medallions and medication reminder systems, and providing remote monitoring. And there’s also Dinsow, another type of elderly care robot.

Then there’s this robotic nurse, which crosses the line into the uncanny valley, that place where robots look as close to a human as possible — but not close enough. I get completely creeped out about it. I don’t want this thing caring for me.

And that’s the problem healthcare poses for robotics. Patient care always depended on making a human connection, but designing very human-like robots to care for us won’t work. We’ll reject them because they are just way too close to us, and yet not us. That’s why RIBA, Pepper and Dinsow purposefully have an anime style to them. We know they’re not human, but they are not-human enough for us to accept them and allow them to care for us.

I recognize that many of us are not comfortable with the notion of any robot caring for us, but as Dr. Louise Aronson, a noted researcher in geriatric medicine, says, “In an ideal world each of us would have at least one kind and fully capable human caregiver to meet our physical and emotional needs as we age. But most of us do not live in an ideal world, and a reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all.”

Isaac Asimov famously created the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

For healthcare, I would add one more:

  1. A robot must not look human.

Robots have to function in a human-built world, so they will necessarily take on certain anatomical characteristics to carry out those functions. But they should not be so fully human that we reject them completely.

Image courtesy of Horia Varlan/Flickr.

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