I trust that the TV and radio producers I deal with are adept at gauging public interest in the stories on which they ask me to comment. So I’m sure there must be great interest in the concept of the care robot, a topic on which I was asked to comment three times yesterday, ending with a debate with The Guardian’s Michele Hanson on BBC Ulster.
Michele and I were positioned slightly apart in our opinions, though perhaps not as far as it may have seemed to the listener. For while I think robots most definitely have a role to play in the care sector, I’m loathe to accept that they are in any way a suitable replacement for a human being.
Love technology, respect people
Any reader of this blog will know that I love technology. It has been my obsession from near-birth. But I also feel we are too appreciative of our own brilliance when compared to the spectacular complexity of our own bodies. We can’t yet understand nearly half of what we our bodies and minds can do, let alone replicate it. Rarely are those uniquely human characteristics more important than in a caring environment.
For this reason we are a long way from having a robot that can ‘care’, however rapid the rate of technological progress. The revolution we require is not one of technology but of economics and social policy, properly valuing care work and creating a system to reward it appropriately. It’s hard to see how this will be achieved without radical political intervention in the economic system, something that might be decades away.
What fits today’s system is an answer based on capital investment in technologies that can — if only in part — offset the lack of proper investment in humans in a care setting.
This is where Michele and I differ. We agree that robots can’t care. But we disagree about whether robots can be useful companions.
I am not a pet person. Animals make me sneeze. Dogs scare me. And frankly it’s hard enough tidying up after myself and my kids, let alone adding an even less self-controlled creature into the mix.
But I get it. I understand the appeal. I’ve seen the joy that animal companions bring to others. A joy that has been quantified by research. As the US Center for Disease Control, an organisation not prone to woo, puts it:
“Pets can decrease your: Blood pressure, Cholesterol levels, Triglyceride levels, feelings of loneliness…”
Now, what proportion of each of these benefits do you think is down to the innate capabilities of the animal? And what proportion is down to what happens in our heads through our interactions? The studies, though small so far, suggest that robot companions can offer the same benefits as living companions.
Robots may not yet be even as smart as our pets. But they can be much better adapted to the needs of those they are designed to interact with. For a start, they can speak, tell stories, show films, control lights and heating, and clean floors rather than dirty them.
Between these enhanced capabilities and our own propensity to anthropomorphise everything around us, it seems obvious to me that robot companions can be a useful supplement to human interaction.
Companionship is not care
This though, is the limit of their capabilities with today’s technology. Robots cannot replace humans in a care setting and nor should we accept that as a proposition. We have a major under-employment problem amongst the young, an ageing population and historical undervaluation of care work: one solution could hit the trifecta.
If and when these problems are solved though, robots will remain useful and valid additional companions.