US parents now more accepting of robots in children's healthcare, study shows

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to be more trusting of robots and AI in healthcare. Tufts professor discusses changes in attitudes toward technology.

Robot surgery, nurses: US parents now more likely to accept technology in their children's care

TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with Dr. Karen Panetta, an IEEE fellow and dean of graduate education at the School of Engineering at Tufts University, about robots caring for children in healthcare. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Karen Roby: Dr. Panetta, the last time we talked, it was about a study. You've done a follow-up study regarding parents with children under the age of 10, how they feel about care for their children involving robots and things like that in a healthcare setting. What stood out to you here? Give us some of the highlights.

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Karen Panetta: This study is looking at parents with children under age of 10, and we've done this study before COVID-19 and now we're seeing profound changes after COVID. There used to be so much resistance to robots, and artificial intelligence (AI), and trust, and we're seeing a huge shift. The US is still lagging, but we're seeing a huge shift. For instance robot surgery, in most countries, there's a strong correlation the parents are OK with it, but here in the US there's still reservations. Which I still find interesting since most of that type of surgery is developed and that technology is developed in the US.

In general, about 60% of all the parents were OK with it. They said, "Yeah, that's something that I would consider." The other big one that's kind of interesting, and I think this is more not related to COVID, but more related to acceptances of technology as they're being deployed, is artificial hearts or 3D printed organs. And parents are beginning to be accepting of that, because I think they understand that if you have a life-or-death situation where there is no organ available, these are going to become viable options in the future. So we're seeing strong resonance with parents to allow that as well.

Karen Roby: It's so interesting to see how, as we've moved through this last nine months, really since February or March, how our thoughts have changed and our feelings towards things have changed, and in some cases quite drastically. And in this specifically we're seeing it with parents and how they feel about care for their children.

Karen Panetta: One of the other ones that came out of this that is heartbreaking is the number of people that aren't allowed to see their loved ones in hospitals with COVID. And I think that before to say doing virtual AI visits, or being able to have interactive types of sessions, any types of things like that, everybody prefers in person. But now that you have no option and you can't go in, and as a parent that terrifies me to think that I wouldn't be able to physically be with my child.

SEE: Study: Millennial parents are more likely to consider AI for their kids' health (TechRepublic) 

Even AI-powered virtual nurses, people are becoming more comfortable with that. And I think moreso not because they wouldn't be able to be near the child, but moreso because they now worry that the communications of the disease as one caretaker goes from patient to patient, I think they feel they're safer with virtual nurses in the room doing the monitoring, than a physical human being. That was kind of an interesting study. About 54% of our respondents said that they'd be comfortable with that.

Karen Roby: Let's talk a little bit about another big facet of this study involving disinfecting and social distancing here, people have very strong feelings on this as well.

Karen Panetta: We talked about this last time. We said how in China, they were OK with [cleaning] robots, and they already had them deployed. And here in the US there was concern about it. But again, now with the COVID in the pandemic, everybody's like I'd feel better with a robot in there because at least they probably have consistent coverage, and you have better monitoring, and you're not jeopardizing healthcare workers, or the people that actually have to do that cleaning. So that's another one that we were actually surprised. So nine out of 10 said they have a lot of trust in robots to do that. And I think that we're going to see, that's going to actually influence new robotic economies. We're going to see a lot more commercial robots being deployed, which is great for the economy, but also, going to help mitigate future risks like this.

Karen Roby: I know AI is truly in your field of study. Do you see that AI in general will be fast-tracked, all of these projects as a result of this pandemic?

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Karen Panetta: It actually is going to be fast-tracked. It's very popular, and we're using it a lot more for understanding how disease propagates for understanding how human behavior is, so that we can come up with interventions to make us safer and help us. We're using it from our study, we saw we used a lot of it for social distancing and to see how people were comfortable with it.

Now that's a huge mind shift because remember, last time we talked, it was like, I don't want Big Brother watching me, and that type of thing. But because it's, well, what are you willing to sacrifice to have your life safe? And your loved ones safe? And people feel comfortable now moving towards that. There are some great concerns though, with AI, because we still have issues with explainability. Everybody thinks it's this magic box you stick data in, and it's going to give you an answer. It's only as good as the data you put in. So, if you train this model and it can have bias, it can be wrong. And if people on the other end are just going to blindly accept the outcomes, that's a problem. That's why we really have huge inroads to make with education for AI for everyone, not just those of us developing it.

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TechRepublic's Karen Roby spoke with Dr. Karen Panetta, an IEEE fellow and dean of graduate education at the School of Engineering at Tufts University, about robots caring for children in healthcare.

Image: iStock/Ekkasit919