If ever there was an article in the newspaper that made me want to die young and leave a good looking corpse, it’s got to be this one: “The Future of Robot Caregivers.” It’s a piece from the New York Times in which the author, Louise Aronson, a professor of geriatrics at the University of California, argues for the creation and manufacture of robot
overlords caregivers because taking care of old people is, um, hard and gross.
Caregiving is hard work. More often than not, it is tedious, awkwardly intimate and physically and emotionally exhausting. Sometimes it is dangerous or disgusting. Almost always it is 24/7 and unpaid or low wage, and has profound adverse health consequences for those who do it. It is women’s work and immigrants’ work, and it is work that many people either can’t or simply won’t do.
Aronson’s solution to the problem is to
pay higher wages to elderly care workers create and manufacture robots to care for and interact with the elderly until the old people drop dead. It’s kind of an interesting future the author envisions, and one that I imagine would appeal not only to the old and infirm, but to a 33 year old mother of two who blogs (that’s me):
Imagine this: Since the robot caregiver wouldn’t require sleep, it would always be alert and available in case of crisis. While my patient slept, the robot could do laundry and other household tasks. When she woke, the robot could greet her with a kind, humanlike voice, help her get out of bed safely and make sure she was clean after she used the toilet. It — she? he? — would ensure that my patient took the right medications in the right doses. At breakfast, the robot could chat with her about the weather or news.
I want someone to do my laundry while I’m sleeping. I want someone to chat pleasantly with me without rolling their eyes or turning up the volume on the television. Not sure why the old people get to have all the good stuff.
What the author fails to recognize is that science is a long way off from creating a machine that can approximate human behavior, if it’s even possible. Oh, it seems like we’re close, because every so often we hear about a “breakthrough”–remember when that IBM computer, Watson, beat the human contestants at the television game show Jeopardy!? (I remember: I blogged about it in “Watson, Come Here, I Need You”) At the time, there was much hullaballoo until people realized Watson wasn’t anything more than a souped-up version of Google.
Then a few weeks ago, researchers announced that a computer had finally passed the Turing Test: a chatbot program tricked a few people into thinking it was actually human. The researchers contended this met the standard for artificial intelligence set out by the famous British scientist Alan Turing (I’ve also blogged about Turing and his test before in this post, “More Human Than Human”). That was all well and good until you examine the details of the experiment: while 30% of the participants thought the computer was human, a whopping 70% correctly identified it as a computer. Further, the interaction between humans and the computer lasted for only five minutes. I could probably convince 30% of you all that I’m the Queen of England (and that the Queen has a thick American accent) in a five minute convo.
So while it may not even be possible to create machines that are this sophisticated, let’s try to imagine a society capable of that sort of technology: wouldn’t it have already solved problems like failing eyesight and decreased mobility? In my lifetime, we’ve mapped the human genome, created a vaccine for cancer, a pill for HIV, laparoscopic surgery, and we routinely replace hips and knees. It seems much more likely that we’ll make advances in the treatment of the diseases of old age before we figure out how to manufacture humanoids.
In conclusion, I think we’ll be wiping our own butts in the future.
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