Thursday, August 27, 2020

Robot Caretakers

Here's another article, long and detailed, about robot personal attendants for elderly people:

Meet Your Robot Caretaker

I was a little surprised that the first paragraph suggests those machines will be a common household convenience in "four or five decades." I'd have imagined their becoming a reality sooner, considering that robots able to perform some of the necessary tasks already exist. The article mentions several other countries besides Japan where such devices are now commercially available.

The article enumerates some of the potential advantages of robot health care aides: (1) There's no risk of personality conflicts, as may develop between even the most well-intentioned people. (2) Automatons don't need time off. (3) They don't get tired, confused, sick, or sloppy. (4) They can take the place of human workers in low-paid, often physically grueling jobs. (4) Automatons are far less likely to make mistakes, being "programmed to be consistent and reliable." (5) In case of error, they can correct the problem with no emotional upheaval to cloud their judgment or undermine the client-caretaker relationship. (6) The latter point relates to an actual advantage many prospective clients see in having nonhuman health aides; there's no worry about hurting a robot's feelings. (7) Likewise, having a machine instead of a live person to perform intimate physical care, such as bathing, would avoid embarrassment.

Contrary to hypothetical objections that health-care robots would deprive human aides of work, one expert suggests that "robots handling these tasks would free humans to do other, more important work, the kind only humans can do: 'How awesome would it be for the home healthcare nurse to play games, discuss TV shows, take them outside for fresh air, take them to get their hair done, instead of mundane tasks?'” Isolated old people need "human connection" that, so far, robots can't provide. The article does, however, go on to discuss future possibilities of emotional bonding with robots and speculates about the optimal appearances of robotic home health workers. A robot designed to take blood pressure, administer medication, etc. should have a shape that inspires confidence. On the other hand, it shouldn't look so human as to fall into the uncanny valley.

As far as "bonding" is concerned, the article points out that "for most people, connections to artificial intelligence or even mechanical objects can happen without even trying." The prospect of more lifelike robots and deeper bonding, however, raises another question: Would clients come to think of the automaton as so person-like that some of the robotic advantages listed above might be negated? I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's classic story about a robot grandmother who wins the love of a family of motherless children, "I Sing the Body Electric"; one child fears losing the "grandmother" in death, like her biological mother.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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