A council has become the first in the UK to introduce a ROBOT as part of its social care team.
‘Pepper’ will be used with vulnerable patients such as those with dementia and children with learning difficulties to keep them amused.
The child-sized gadget can speak 12 different languages and communicates through videos and sensory games.
It is currently the first robot with the ability to recognise principal human emotions and adapt its own behaviour to make independent decisions.
Pepper has been bought for £20,000 by Southend Borough Council in Essex to work alongside their existing care team.
Councillor Lesley Salter, who is responsible for health and adult social care, said: “I have met Pepper and he is very cute, kind, engaging and learning all the time.
“He is an amazing addition to our equipment team and I really think he will be both popular and successful with staff and our local community, both young and old.
“I am very proud that Southend is leading the way and we are all so excited to see what Pepper and this technology in general can do for our services and help us meet the well-known challenges that the social care sector faces.
“Robots may seem like something from the distant future, but the technology is here and we strongly believe that Pepper can have a positive impact on social care as we continue to transform our services and make sure they are fit for the future.”
Pepper, designed by Japanese company, Softbanks, can recognise face and speech, and moves around on its own using sensors and both 3D and HD cameras.
It changes the colour of its eyes to match the mood of the patient and can alter its tone of voice depending on whether they’re happy or sad.
Pepper is also connected to the internet and can keep people up to date with the latest news, the weather or even find the perfect recipe.
Sharon Houlden, Director of Adult Services and Housing at Southend Borough Council, said: “This is a tremendously exciting time and I am delighted that we have pro-actively decided to introduce robotics to Southend-on-Sea and are pioneering this technology.
“Pepper will not be used to carry out any direct or personal one to one care, but he can used in a range of settings, including in residential care homes, our sheltered housing schemes and as an information and advice point in relevant buildings.
“Pepper will also be a champion for the advances that digital and robotic technology and programming can make in a social care setting and he will visit local schools to inspire children to consider a career in the social care, robotic and programming sector.
“Whilst the sector has talked about this technology for some time now, we are ambitious and confident enough in Southend-on-Sea to make the first move and become the first local authority to trial this technology.
“We are convinced that digital technology is where the future lies for social care and we would be delighted to explore this further with other innovative partners.”
But Mrs Houlden has confirmed that Pepper has not been introduced to steal jobs.
She added: “We are absolutely clear that Pepper is not here to replace any of our people, but to complement and help the existing staff we have to deliver a better service by freeing up time for them to deal directly with people for example.”
There are also plans for Pepper to meet schoolchildren to encourage them to study robotics, technology and science.
Public service union UNISON has slammed plans for a robot to join social care workers – dubbing it a “sticking plaster masking a much bigger problem”.
UNISON national care officer Matt Egan said: “A smile or a hug from a machine is going to be small comfort to anyone feeling sad and alone.
“Buying robots might be cheaper than training and employing experienced staff, but they’re essentially sticking plasters masking a much bigger problem.
“With too few staff, cash-strapped councils are turning to solutions like using machines as they struggle to provide care in an underfunded and over-stretched care sector.
“But as we all live longer, the one million extra care workers needed to look after us all will only materialise when the government provides the funding the system urgently needs.”
Representatives at disability charity Scope have also slated the idea, calling for more funding from the Government and “not pipe dreams of robot carers”.
Ceri Smith, Policy and Campaigns Manager at disability charity Scope, said: “A fully functioning care system should support disabled people to live the lives they want to, and help to combat isolation.
“Robots and smart technology may have a role to play in enhancing care, but the care system is facing more immediate problems.
“We need urgent action from Government to fix our chronically underfunded care system, not pipe dreams of robot carers.”
Lesley Salter, Southend-on-Sea Borough councillor for Adult Social Care has said that it will not replace any services but instead “free up time for social workers and carers”.
Cllr Salter said: “Whilst Pepper will not be used to carry out any direct or personal one to one care, he will be used in residential care homes, our sheltered housing schemes and as an information and advice point in relevant buildings.
“We also want to use him in some of our inter-generational projects – for example in one group, where older people teach younger people how to knit, he could display knitting techniques and video tutorials.
“He can also play videos and we plan to develop a reminiscence session that Pepper could run.
“We expect that whilst Pepper will not replace any services we commission, he will free up time for our social workers and carers to spend more time giving direct care and the personal touch.
“Pepper will also be a champion for the advances that digital and robotic technology and programming can make in a social care setting and he will visit local schools to inspire children to consider a career in the social care, robotic and programming sector.”
CEO and Founder of Autism All Stars Foundation UK, Helen Wallace Iles, believes that Pepper would be a great tool to help autistic people with social anxiety.
“Social anxiety is one of the biggest hurdles faced by people on the autism spectrum, and this can be caused by a difficulty in understanding things like facial expressions, tones of voice, sarcasm and body language.
“Human beings can be very confusing and will often react negatively to an autistic person’s attempts to make friends, leading to a fear of failure and a reluctance to form friendships in the future.
“In addition, many autistic people can feel a deep connection with, and empathy towards, inanimate objects – much more so than other children who spend time on computers or smart phones – so I can certainly see this idea being very appealing to them.
“This robot is designed to mimic social interaction as closely as possible – bridging the gap between computers and tablets and actual human beings – and offer role play scenarios that allow autistic people to learn new social skills in an environment where they won’t suffer rejection.
“Receiving appropriate feedback without upsetting or offending anyone if they make a mistake can be very valuable when building social confidence.
“If we put aside any fears of robotic technology, and view this as simply another tool we can use to help autistic people navigate the difficult world of human interaction, then surely it’s got to be a step in the right direction.”