Emotional AI and the Future of Nursing Education

By Luke Smith, Writer and Researcher
Twitter: @lukesmithwrites

Healthcare is set to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of artificial intelligence (AI). The applications for data analysis as well as simplifying day-to-day tasks will help streamline healthcare and allow those within the industry to focus on what’s most important: patient outcomes, patient satisfaction, and patient empowerment. At the same time, there’s a type of AI developing that’s still flying under the radar — at least in American hospitals. It’s called emotional AI, and it’s solving some of the most pressing problems within the practical application of AI on the ground.

Emotional AI gives the machine ‘feelings,’ or at least allows the machine to understand and identify basic human emotions. Though a machine can’t at this point experience the world the way a human does, it will present interesting challenges to those who need to interact with it.

What is happening with emotional AI, and how will nurses find themselves interacting with it? The answer is that it could transform nursing in a very good way.

What is Emotional AI (Emotion AI)?
Machine learning is best associated with the concepts of data processing and analysis. However, in scientists’ quest to program algorithms to learn more about humans and mimic their behavior, the technologies underpinning artificial intelligence will — and already are — learning more about feelings. The ability to recognize and learn human emotions and then deploy them is a field scientists refer to as Emotion AI, a subset of AI that’s growing in both use and its capacity to learn.

Why do robots need to learn about human emotion? Aren’t they just here to solve basic problems and identify errors? The answer is both yes and no.

Emotional intelligence is a core element of human intelligence, which means it’s a key requirement for AI as well. Humans need to be able to identify and interpret the emotions of other humans, and humans who have trouble doing so have difficulty building relationships, keeping jobs, or even making simple decisions. Because AI needs to interact with humans, it also needs to learn their emotions, even if the algorithm won’t necessarily feel them the way humans do.

Ultimately, to create an AI system that’s empathetic, ethical, and effective, it needs to be emotional. Given the importance of emotional intelligence and soft skills within every aspect of nursing, any AI that goes into the field needs to be at least able to mimic these skills well.

How Emotional Robots Contribute to Care
The AI that nurses will encounter in their day-to-day practice largely includes social robotics, which is an area where emotions are key. But how far can robots go when performing nursing tasks and caring the way humans do? It’s hard to tell, but the application of existing robots can give us an idea.

Robots in the U.S. are largely contained to labs and operating rooms, but in Japan, large robots are used to supplement healthcare staff. Nurse.org details a number of robots being used in nursing, including a robot nurse bear (created by Riken and Sumitomo Riko Labs) helping teams by performing tasks like lifting patients and helping with transfers. The robot’s ability to do this is huge for healthcare workers in Japan because the country boasts the oldest population in the world. So providing robots that can help older people move, stabilize, and transfer saves a huge amount of physical labor that can be hard on nurses’ bodies.

Other healthcare robots combat another increasingly urgent need: socialization. It’s now understood that loneliness and social isolation pose health risks among older people (and more generally). Robots like PARO, also discussed by Nurse.org, can participate in simple conversations and provide affection and comfort to patients who are shy. In the U.S., North American RoboCourier is working in hospitals to complete basic tasks like transporting linens and medications.

An understanding of how these technologies work, particularly in terms of providing social contact, is still in its infancy. It’s also not clear whether these robots are genuinely helpful or if they fall into the category of being ‘better than nothing.’

For nurses, robots could offer far more benefits than drawbacks, particularly given the unending challenges in providing thorough care. Workloads combined with a chronic lack of staff have already removed the human-touch element of caring from many patient experiences. Robotic nursing could pick up the slack so that nurses can return to a more holistic form of caring, particularly because they can do things like heavy lifting, patient triage, and ensure standardization in core tasks like patient education. For example, robots could do things like show newly diagnosed diabetics how to manage their disease or inject insulin, which would complement other work by AI that could help people measure their blood glucose more accurately. These are highly repetitive tasks that a program could learn how to do with little effort.

How Will Robots Impact Nurse Education?
One of the most common concerns related to artificial intelligence is the alleged threat to livelihoods. However, AI is already in use throughout the healthcare system, and so far, it is a boon to public health rather than a threat to health professionals. For example, machine learning is helping in fields like diagnostics as well as in administrative work.

For the foreseeable future, nurses probably won’t see a change in their education — at least in terms of content. AI, in general, is likely to play an increasingly larger role in the education experience in areas like exam proctoring, providing assistants, and solving common administrative questions.

Instead, nurses may be more likely to encounter changes during clinical hours. The biggest change both for individual nurses and for the profession will be their involvement in deciding what elements of nursing should remain with the humans and what can be delegated with robots. For example, one of the early uses of social robots is in supplementing interventions via telehealth programs. Nurses and doctors participate in face-to-face interventions and leave the robots to complete telehealth visits. There have been problems, but generally, patients have found that the combined experience is satisfying.

Ultimately, the robots aren’t coming for nurses’ jobs, but they can supplement care in a meaningful capacity. As a result, both practicing and new nurses will need to learn how to work with rather than for robots — as well as other emerging technologies — and it’s likely to become a part of mainstream education and continuing education in the near future. A nurse’s ability to work in partnership with emotional AI will keep them both relevant and valuable within the healthcare sector.