21st Century Jobs 2: Integrating Robots into Social Life, Especially Nursing

(Note:  This is the second in an irregular series on 21st century career tracks one might not have thought of before now.  Running roughly around the January 1, or until I run out of steam or ideas.  Impressionistic, anecdotal, and off the top of my head.  Also note, not all of these posts are about the higher ed bubble; some are just about emerging career tracks.)

For several years now I have been immersed in battlefield robotics – both the things, such as drones, that exist today or are rapidly emerging, and the longer run technologies involving things like robot autonomy.  My interest in this area started with battlefields, robotics, and law and ethics, but has gradually broadened out to the general area of robots and society, and the integration of robotics into social life.  Stealing a line from my daughter, who stuck this in a term paper or somewhere, I’m interested in the “social life of things.”  So I’ve broadened my reading to encompass robotics and society generally.  I have a sense that several streams of technology and social forces are gradually converging with respect to robotics in general society, in ways that are not quite visible now but will be over the next 10-20 years.

An area in which I think believe robots will have an earlier, rather than later, impact on careers and labor markets will be health care, and particularly nursing.  Doctors will use increasingly sophisticated robots in places like the operating theatre, as more advanced versions of what they use them for now, and computer diagnostics will also surely advance.  But if one thinks about robotics as involving gross movement in the world and locomotion, it seems likely that nursing will be transformed by the introduction of robots that can – as they already do – navigate hospital corridors to deliver meds and such tasks on wheels.  It’s not different really from the use of such machines in large warehouses to move inventory.

These functions will gradually get more sophisticated and intelligent, improving abilities as far as navigation goes, and leading to the ability to accomplish more difficult tasks than simply transporting things around.  Eventually robots might (almost certainly will) do such things as draw blood (a Japanese robot has been showcased that does this), and tasks that require far more decision-making power as well as more advanced sensors and precision in movement.

The career aspect that I find most interesting lies at the intersection of robotic technology, design, and nursing.  I believe there will be an interesting, though likely small, job niche for people who are able to cross all three fields in order to help figure out how to design machines to do the tasks most needed in nursing.  Not so much medicine in general, and still less the doctor’s job – but the nursing aspects.  One reason is that as the baby boomers age, the labor intensive nursing functions, ranging from semi-skilled to highly-skilled, are going to be a bigger and bigger part of the total cost.

Beyond the cost efficiencies, however, I suspect baby boomers will discover that they far prefer to be cared for by machines that are much more directly under their personal control and which seem like extensions of oneself than a need for assistance.  I would and I doubt I am alone.  I suspect that aging boomers will strongly prefer to have assistance with things like toileting,  hygiene, dressing, etc., from a robotic machine rather than the intrusion into personal space of an actual person, no matter how caring.  My guess is that an aging population that wants to remain independent as long as possible will see robots as a way of preserving dignity, independence, autonomy, and privacy, at a lower cost.

That’s if the machines work as advertised, of course – which presumes a design that takes into account engineering, design, and the practical aspects of nursing.  Such career tracks might be found in the tech firms developing the robotics; in independent contractor design firms; or within schools of nursing, where at least some nursing professors can focus on the practical issues.  If I were a university nursing school or professor of nursing, I would consider trying to adapt the model of developing technologies, methods, and patents already found in many other areas as a way of incentivizing innovation.  (Maybe this is happening already; I’d be interested to hear, because though I read pretty widely on this, I have not seen indications of this happening so far.)