There’s been quite a lot of talk in recent years about the potential for robots to support, or even replace, therapists in neurological rehabilitation clinics, home-care workers in rest homes, and teachers in the classroom. Often, stories about robotic therapy aides are sold as radical alternatives to contemporary practice. But how radical are they really?
A recent post celebrating the success of a robot in helping stroke patients regain upper limb movement (link) illustrates the point. If robots like this are seen as an albeit very accurate and quantifiable extra pair of hands, then they could be said to fall into the same class of technology as another therapist, therapy assistant, or even the kinds of sling suspension systems pioneered by Guthrie Smith.
In her own time, Olive Guthrie Smith revolutionised physiotherapy by allowing patients to exercise for themselves over much longer periods of time once the therapist had set them up with a carefully designed system of supports and stimuli. Lanckenau wrote in 1943 that ‘[t]he psychological effect of early active exercise in recumbency, graduated to active resistive exercise, is enormous’ (Lanckenau 1943, 620).
When seen more broadly, therapeutic aids and equipment like Guthrie Smith’s sling suspension system can be classed alongside other ‘technologies’ that supports the work of the therapist: a sliding board, a sling, another pair of hands, a treadmill, a body-weight support system, water, a dynamometer, etc. Indeed, any form of support or resistance is a technology that we can use, and have used, throughout the history of the profession.
As Fran Brander argued in explaining the new UCLH robotic arm; ‘Therapists shouldn’t see [robots] as a threat’ but as an ally, and the false dichotomy created by the suggestion that a boss might ‘pay for a therapist [rather] than a robot because you’re going to have better outcomes’ misses the point that not all therapists need robots, but that all robot need a therapist for them to function.
At the moment, at least.
Lanckenau, N.I. 1943, Rehabilitation by modern methods of exercise. In, W. B. Doherty & D. D. Runes (eds.), Rehabilitation of the war injured, a symposium. New York, Philosophical Library, pp. 614-21.