We’ve been reading about robotic caregivers becoming a reality soon. In fact, it’s already happening in Japan. In a recent New York Times article, Louise Aronson, an associate professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote about a 72-year-old woman named Miriam finding comfort in interacting with and confiding in a robot called Paro.
We already have robots assisting us in surgery and delivering medications and other supplies in hospitals. Robots are also increasingly used in rehabilitation after debilitating events like strokes. Aronson, however, pointed out that even within the medical community, the idea that machines could help fulfill more than just physical needs meets largely with skepticism, and occasionally with outrage.
While robots might not ever replace human beings (try not to think of the movie Her), they could help solve the labour crisis by providing more caregivers for the growing number of older people. The Times also quoted Jim Osborn, the executive director of the Quality of Life Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, who said that the current limitation for the robotic caregiver to become more accessible is not the technology, but finding a viable business model to make it affordable.
But whether we can afford robots or not, many seniors and boomers consider robots only as ”caring machines.” They are not human beings who do care about us unlike most robots who maintain eye contact, call us by our names and respond to verbal cues to simulate care and understanding. No robots in this world could possibly understand how we feel and experience the real pains and joys in life we human beings go through.
So I agree with Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, who recently pointed out in The New York Times letters to the editor, that by outsourcing a caretaker’s job to a robot, we give up what we, as human beings, do best – “understanding each other, taking care of each other.”
Machines and technology are meant to help alleviate human tasks. But if we give up empathy and feelings for one another, particularly for our elderly, then growing old is really going to be a tragic business!