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Why is social uptake of interactive robots lagging behind in Europe?

The European Commission is funding INBOTS – Inclusive Robotics for a Better Society – with the purpose to create a community hub that can bring together experts to debate and create a responsible research and innovation paradigm for robotics. Work package 6 has the responsibility to find out how to promote acceptance and social uptake among Europeans. The first thing we did was to create a picture of what the uptake and use of robots look like in Europe. With data from Eurostat and best practices collected from the 25 Partners from 12 European countries including public groups and end-suers, legal authorities, businesses, industry, academia and policy makers, see more at: http://inbots.eu/the-consortium/.

So, what do we know about the social uptake of robots in Europe? Well, not much but we know where the gaps and weaknesses are. First statistics is insufficient statistics since it is limited to 15-64 years old and presented at a high aggregated level. This means that children and old people are excluded!

However, the comprehensive social uptake of ICTs, can be expected to also nurture acceptance and social uptake of interactive robots. Today 83% of European citizens and 85% of European households access Internet every day.

When it comes to the uptake in different sectors it is clear that social care, especially to meet the needs and demands from Ageing populations is lagging behind. Industry is at the leading edge, having been involved in robotizing from several decades. Still user acceptance is not optimal. Also, logistics and rescue activities is at the leading edge but have more to with for when it comes to robot-human collaboration. The same goes for education which is a promising area according to the eCraft2Learn project. The use of interacive robots in education activities is proven to improve cognitive skills, social and scientific skills. The barriers for further development are lack of supporting equipemnt such as a curriculum and knowledge among teachers. Interactive robots in health care is on the one hand succesful in terms of rehabilitation and powered exoskeletons to support stroke victims and other disabilities and to assist surgery. On the other hand, looking at social care it is a slow uptake despite of big investments and great expectations. It has to be considered startling that the uptake is so low given the large investments made in research and development, both at European and national level, to meet an aging population. More than 1 billion euros was invested in the previous framework program and continue to do so in Horizon 2020. Why is this?

Well, we can see several explanations. One explanation may be that there is a big difference between implementing technology in industry and in the elderly. In the industry today, according to McKinsey 2017, you can automate almost everything while it is far from obvious in the care sector, it is estimated that about 36% can be automated there. Another explanation may be that elderly care is a sector of low status populated by women who do a good job but far from always well paid. The variation is large in Europe and is related to each country’s welfare policy. There are also other posible explanations and challenges. This is what we are working on now.

We will try to see if we can come up with a helpful strategy on how buisnesses in Europe, already established in robotics, can diversify and broadening their productions and markets to include the public and the social sector. What do you think? Is that possible? How?

Britt Östlund, leader of WP6 and Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH, in Stockholm