The Royal Academy of Engineering has published a report on the social, legal and ethical issues of using robots in healthcare and called for more debate on the acceptability of using them.

The report – Autonomous Systems: social, legal and ethical issues – says robotic technologies promise great benefits when it comes to replacing humans in tasks that are mundane, dangerous or precise.

It says autonomous technologies in healthcare could also offer older and incapacitated people greater independence and allow them to have their health checked quickly and remotely; potentially improving safety.

It adds that in the near future robots have the potential to monitor medicines, send out alerts if occupants are not moving, and become artificial therapists or even social or sexual companions.

The report acknowledges that there has been a significant amount of research into the area of robotics in healthcare and that patient monitoring systems and smart homes are already commercially available.

However, it airs concerns that while such technologies are “close to the horizon” there has been “very little debate concerning the acceptability or the ethical consequences of their use.”

It also argues that there are issues with the large amounts of personal data generated by patient monitoring systems, and that “there has been no discussion about the use of the data” and who should access and hold it.”

Furthermore, it says that although artificial companions may prevent isolation, they may also manipulate vulnerable people who believe they are communicating with another person.

The report also looks briefly at robotic surgery, which is becoming more main-stream. Professor Stewart and report co-author Chris Elliott remain convinced that autonomous systems will prove, on average, to be better than surgeons. However, they warn that when they are not healthcare providers could find themselves in a “legal morass.”

Dr Elliott said: “If a robot surgeon is actually better than a human one, most times you’re going to be better off with a robot surgeon. But occasionally it might do something that a human being would never be so stupid as to do.”

Professor Stewart added: “It is fundamentally a big issue that we think the public ought to think through before we start trying to imprison a robot.”

The report recommends engaging early in public consultation, for example with older people on the issue of technologies in their homes, in order to understand their expectations and concerns, so that these can guide the development of new systems.

Link: Autonomous Systems: social, legal and ethical issues