When Technology Meets Social Policy

In humanity’s continued efforts to adapt to a global ageing population, an article on BBC News and another article on CNN published late last year discuss a new solution to filling the elderly care gap: using robots to meet both the physical and emotional needs of our expanding elderly population. The idea of a “robotic” future may sound like science fiction and even invoke a sense of uneasiness, yet the change is gradually taking place across the world before our very eyes. Robots today can perform an amazing array of tasks: moving patients between rooms, tracking their sleep patterns, reminding them to take their medication, providing speech therapy to dementia patients, giving massages, and preparing and delivering meals. The recent development in assistive technology for care reminds us that we are living on the brink of the future and also invites us to reflect on the adaptability of modern social policies introduced over the past hundred or so years.

The elderly care revolution began a few decades ago and is receiving more and more attention because an increasing number of elderly are expected to be living alone at home in the coming years. While scientists have been trying to refine the precision of physical tasks that robots can perform, they are also exploring the possible use of robots to fulfil the emotional needs of human beings. A notable example is “Paro” – a stuffed harp seal-like robot with touch sensors that can respond to vision, hearing, temperature and can learn new routines depending on the needs of the user. It has been used in nursing homes in Japan and Europe since 2003 and was certified as the “world’s most therapeutic robot” by the Guinnness Book of Records. The growing interest in using automated caregivers can be seen in the allocation of 2.39 billion yen (£14.3m) in the 2013 budget to develop care robots by the Japanese government. Perhaps robots, by supplying a new workforce, can be one of the solutions to multiple problems encountered by modern welfare states.

Over a coffee discussion with a friend in which I depicted the possibility of such a “robotic” future, my friend expressed dismay at the fall of humanity with the increasing use of robots. Rather than worrying about the complete extermination of mankind in a “robocalypse” as portrayed by popular imagination, using robots can be seen as a way to outsource repetitive tasks which we would rather not do. Not only does it provide a new workforce to cope with the widespread caregiver shortage, it also enables a more efficient division of care responsibility. While robots take care of the manual labour part, human beings can have more time and energy to focus on the caring and strategic part, which cannot be performed or replaced by machines. Instead of seeing it as a demise of humanity, it can perhaps be seen as an evolved version of humanity, a smarter and more efficient way of doing things.

It is true that such development raises some ethical questions such as the potentially troubling implications of a patient developing an emotional connection with a robot. But let us not forget throughout history human beings are capable of developing emotional connections with a variety of living and non-living things, such as pets, toys, handbags and mobile phones. Also, technology has been revolutionizing our lives not only in the area of care but also in other areas such as education, communication, fertility, ageing measurement and commerce, which requires us to think creatively to solve problems related to ethical uncertainty. Given that social policies are developed to respond to and cope with societal changes, the role played by the technological revolution, which is the driving force of changes in our societies, deserves much more attention.

The increasing application of technology in different social policies reminds us of the cultural and historical specificity of our modern social policies, which as Walker (2013) very wisely pointed out, relates to “Western Europe in the late industrial age, to Fordist and bureaucratic employment models and to single male breadwinner, nuclear families… a model exported through colonial channels and a post-colonial legacy of international agencies.”  Many of the problems with modern welfare states can be traced back to fact that our societies are changing faster than the time required for social contracts to be agreed upon and updated. Instead of making incremental changes to each program step by step, maybe strategic investment decisions that build capacity and adaptability such as those made by the Japanese government can yield better outcomes in the future. The study of social policy has often focused on lessons from the past, but some added benefit of practicality may be achieved by adopting a forward-looking mindset that promotes exploration of the unknown future.


Walker, R. (2013) ‘Social security: risks, needs and protection’, IN Surrender, R. and Walker, R. Social Policy in a Developing World Elgar: Cheltenham, pp. 127-154.

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