The prospect of robots in the context of care horrifies some people. It’s entirely understandable. However advanced our machines may be, we are some way from creating one that can truly care. One for whom empathy is an emotional connection to another’s needs, not a programmed set of responses to particular stimuli.
Yet robots are increasingly being considered for application in care homes and elsewhere. Not just in places like Japan with low birth rates and ageing populations creating a national shortage of potential carers, but here in the UK where the latest ONS figures show we have a huge problem with underemployment — particularly in the young.
Technology provides, economics dictates
Why turn to robots when we have people who could do the caring? Cost. Like most technologies, the cost of robots has fallen exponentially in recent years, while their capability has climbed. Right now, the economics of our care industry makes capital expenditure on a fleet of robots much more attractive than employing people to do the same work.
Of course, it isn’t a straight swap. Quite apart from the intelligence and empathy of a human carer, our current robots have a fraction of the physical capacity of a human being. There is no robot equivalent to a care worker, and there won’t be for a good few years yet.
But that’s not to say that robots don’t have a role in care. And counter to all the objections, I can see that being a very valuable role.
I’ve had a Cozmo robot at home for the last few days, as part of a forthcoming group of reviews for BBC 5live. Cozmo is a £200 children’s toy that uses the processing power of your smartphone to provide a measure of artificial intelligence. Cozmo can recognise people’s faces, play games (like snap) using a set of interactive blocks, and move objects around your table or desk.
Cozmo is probably the most intelligent children’s toy I have experienced. But he is still basically quite dumb. Yet just like they have with Amazon’s Alexa, my kids have immediately projected a personality onto this simple machine, and interact with it as if it is alive.
This projection seems unaffected by some functions of the robot that are completely incongruous with it being alive — like the capability to take manual control and drive the robot around, seeing the world through its eyes.
We give life to machines
The capabilities of machines in a care context may include play. They may include reminding people to take their pills. Or perhaps they’re just there to keep an eye on people while providing some simple interaction. Whichever of these it is, I think we will find ourselves anthropomorphising the machines we interact with, projecting personalities onto them and interacting with them as if they are alive.
We will benefit from this. Research suggests we feel empathy towards robots. I think it’s clear from observing my kids that our brains register robot interaction as similar to human interaction and take pleasure from it.
We can’t be supported by robots alone. But until we can change the economics of care, I think robots will have a valuable role to play in this environment.