The sociologist Anthony Giddens has commented that in the future, the ‘normal’ body may only be the most basic form of embodiment available to us, and that bodily enhancements like eyes that can zoom, ears with extended hearing range, and designer prosthetic limbs to supplement today’s spectacles and hearing aids will vastly extend the bodies of those who can afford them.
Some of these innovations sound farfetched, but there’s no doubt that the ability to shape and enhance our bodies will be attractive to many people, and will have a big impact on physiotherapy work.
If it’s possible in the future to have a fully autonomous transport network, it’s likely to put an end to most head injuries. If soft tissue injuries can be managed by injections of nano-robotic tissues that mean you can go back to playing five minutes after an ACL rupture, this might have a big impact on the rehab industry. And if people surgery, radiology, and pharmacology become automated, what is the likelihood that physiotherapy might be next?
Here are some examples of the haptic/touch-based work that’s already underway (this, this, this, and this). Technologies like this will surely be adopted by people as these become more sophisticated and accessible.
So far, the professions most immune to technological disruption have been those that require a lot of dextrous touch and inter-personal subjectivity. So professions like physiotherapy, nursing, massage therapy, osteopathy, and midwifery haven’t had to worry too much. But things may be changing.
There’s been interest for some time in robotic carers, and the inability of the psychology, psychotherapy and
But good quality touch still resides firmly in the hands of humans (no pun intended). It’s interesting to read, therefore, about efforts to develop sensors that can allow robots to feel.
One of the mistakes we often make when we try to imagine a future with robots and AI is to think that machines will just be developed to replicate what we do. They almost certainly won’t. Machines will do things their way. And the most disruptive innovations will probably come from technologies that bypass the problems we
So although we can’t expect a robot to ‘feel’ better than a human does any time soon, it’s not unreasonable to expect a robot that has 10, 20 or 30 digits, each with a different sensor, being used therapeutically.
Robotic touch therapies offer some interesting improvements on human therapists:
- They can captures and stores vast volumes of data on things like tissue density and pressure, vascular responses and endorphin release, and share this with other digital therapists around the globe;
- They can ‘learn’ instantaneously, adapting consistently to the person or incorporating the latest research without lag time;
- They can work when the person is ready, no taking time off work to visit a clinic and wait for your appointment;
- And they are the ultimate expression of the body-as-machine. To a machine, you’re not an embodied being, just another arrangement of tissues and structures.
Perhaps the last point is the most significant. Physiotherapists have long sought quantitative, reliable, technical proficiency. But it is the repeatable, learnable, teachable aspects of healthcare that are most at risk from automation, AI, digital disruption and robotics.
Perhaps the rise of new technology will force the profession to ask what is really the essence of physiotherapy before the robots take the body-as-machine?