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Can the UK be world leaders in social care technology?


Read about Consequential Robotics point of view on the latest robotics news, updates and trends. Learn more about the future of social robots and the impact they have on the quality of life as people age. Our writers will share robotics research ideas and challenges to the robotics community.

Can the UK be world leaders in social care technology?

Tony Prescott

People aged 60 or over will increase by 20% in 2050

Globally, the proportion of people aged 60 or over was just 8% in 1950 but this is projected to rise to 20% by 2050. In many European countries, and in Asian economies including Korea, Japan, and China, the proportion of people age 60+ will be approaching 40% by 2050. As a global business and growth opportunity, assistive robots and services present significant possibilities. The worldwide medical robotic systems market size was valued at more than 7 billion dollars in 2014. This market encompasses assistive robots, which also include home-based rehabilitation robotics. This represents a significant export opportunity for UK companies that can create advanced technologies for enhancing social care worldwide.

In 2014 InnovateUK announced a Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Strategy to promote the UK’s competitiveness in RAS through coordinated development of assets and skills across academic, public and private sectors. The strategy recognised that the UK can lead in global innovation in RAS given appropriate coordination and support. Robotics in health and social care has been identified as a key area for development and investment by the EPSRC as part of its Healthcare Technologies Grand Challenge*.

Industry 4.0 Economy

Research in the UK is state-of-the-art, however, many of the leading robotic platforms for social care have been developed overseas, for example, in Japan, the USA, and South Korea. Collaboration with international partners could see UK technology, for example, homegrown AI, sensing and control systems, working onboard platforms developed elsewhere, however, the greatest impact and benefit to the UK economy will be obtained if we can develop both the hardware and software components of RAS care systems natively. This requires partnerships across multiple fields of engineering alongside involvement of British manufacturing supply chains. Building these systems can create new jobs for skilled workers as part of the emerging “Industry 4.0” economy. The potential benefits of priming growth in this sector through public support has been highlighted in the UK government’s industrial Strategy Green Paper.

Whilst existing research support is having some impact, investment is low in relation to the scale and importance of the societal challenge. Moreover, there is only limited evidence of research into assistive robotics translating into new products and services, with many assistive robotics research projects not reaching commercialisation. This disparity between the promise of basic research and translation into real-world impact, the so-called the commercial “valley of death”, occurs in other domains of innovation and experience shows that it can be bridged through better planning and coordination and through proactive intervention.

Can the UK achieve commercial breakthrough research?

To achieve commercial breakthrough research needs to be better grounded in an understanding of user need and successful lab-based research must be followed-up by real-world user trials and impact studies. Paths to markets and potential business models should be analysed at an early stage and gaps identified where the investment risk can be reduced through targeted public funding. A key part of the strategy must be to encourage the emerging SME base for innovation in healthcare robots through UK-based seed funding, and by streamlining opportunities for prototyping and testing within the NHS and within government-funded social care services. We foresee a strategy that brings together different stakeholders to create a step-change in the capability of robotics and AI systems to support social care. The strategy could be formulated around a ‘grand challenge’ with realistic targets and milestones based on the growing user demand and the expected advances in RAS technologies. Successful execution of this strategy will involve working with a worldwide community of developers but with the UK playing a lead role at multiple levels from basic research, through user testing, to understanding societal impacts and addressing ethical concerns.

*EPSRC. Healthcare Technologies Grand Challenge. Accessed 1st June 2017.

This post is an excerpt from the Robotics in Social Care whitepaper co-authored by Professor Tony Prescott.