Personal Care Robots Are The Last Thing We Need

I just heard a story on NPR's All Things Considered that made me want to rip my hair out.  Personal robots!  You know you want one!  You don't need one, but that doesn't matter.  They will be made, you will learn to want them, and you'll be getting them and upgrading them just like your smart phone or iPad.  (Side note: If anyone can explain to me why the new robot thingies always have to be called "Rosie" I will be grateful.  Don't blame it on the Jetsons.  Where did the Jetsons come up with Rosie? Is it all just to mock the real Rosies, the riveters of WWII?)

We don't need robots to walk our dogs or wash our windows.  We don't need them to "fold towels, help elderly and disabled people with home care, and even fetch a beer".  For one thing, there's plenty enough beer-fetching going on in America's households as it is.  For another, if you can't be bothered to walk you own dog, or pay another human to do it for you when you are too busy, you shouldn't have a dog.  Robot dog walkers just take away one more job from young people.

But what REALLY hacks me off is the idea of robots designed to help the elderly and disabled with home care.  What the elderly and disabled need is more contact with other human beings, not less.  They don't need to be even more isolated in their homes than they already are.  They need people they can talk to and interact with and tell their stories to.  We need to pay decent living wages for this kind of care, to value it for the real importance it actually has, not sluff it off on the fantasy product of robotics researchers.

In any case, that bla bla about robots helping the elderly and disabled is just robotics engineers blowing smoke up your ass to keep their projects running.  Do you think something that currently costs $400,000 to build is being designed to help one of the most despised and neglected segments of our population? Where else is money and effort on this scale being poured into improving the lives of the elderly and the disabled?

Robots are going to be a hip thing for the youth culture, just like smart phones and iPads.  Things you could live without but are so cool to have, things that are always being upgraded.  Things that are costly.  The elderly and disabled, by and large, don't have extra cash to lay out on costly toys.  They aren't going to buy dog-walking, beer-fetching robots.

Redesigning existing home stock to be universally accessible, or making sure your local government buildings and restaurants really are accessible as they claim to be, or lobbying for better care for returning disabled veterans - none of this sounds as sexy as beer-toting personal robots, I am sure.  But all of it would be a a helluva lot more useful than one more fancy toy for your neighbor to envy.

14 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    It is so great to have your voice back. And, yes.

  • Pascale says:

    I suspect Rosie the Robot was chosen because of the pleasing alliteration.
    While I agree that increasing human contact and wages for working with the elderly and others are important, we probably will not return to live-in companions (like in Victorian England) for everyone. I suspect such care will be intermittent, and it might be nice to have a "robot" that could recognize a big problem and call for help the rest of the time. My parents would certainly prefer that to a care facility.

  • Pascale says:

    And I would love a robo-bartender. I mean, I can grab a beer myself. What I really want is something like the Wafflebot (see A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas) but with booze to make pretty frou frou martinis and clean up the sticky shaker. Now that might be worth a few $K.

  • brooksphd says:

    Fuck. Yeah.

    Bravo Z

  • quixote says:

    Pascale, alliteration doesn't explain why it's not Ronnie the Robot.

    As for the whole house-robot thing, yes, it's hard to imagine disabled elderly are the real target. It reminds me of the early days of genetic engineering, when it was all about adding Vitamin A genes to rice to mend deficiencies among the Southeast Asian poor. What we got instead was mostly patented Roundup-resistance.

    Speaking purely for my lazy self, though, /*gets all dreamy*/ ... mmmm ... house robot. I'd even settle for a mere robovacuum cleaner than could deal with carpet fringes and electrical cords.

    • Pascale says:

      Wasn't Robbie the Robot an earlier one?
      And I'm sure it was "Rosie" because a housekeeper/cook, even as a robot, could not be a man...

  • Anonymous says:

    I think people with physical disabilities could most benefit from robots to help do things, in order to have increased independence. Not necessarily companionship, but help with physical mobility and chores. If my entire life I've washed my own windows, and one day both my arms get amputated, I'd much rather be able to command a robot to wash my windows than to have to hire someone to come into my home to do it. (Or brush my teeth, or mow my lawn, or empty the dishwasher).

    I suspect most young people with paraplegia would much rather have a robot they could control to help them with personal care - bathroom, washing, etc., instead of havig to have a caregiver do those things.

    And frankly, if I was a caregiver for a family member or friend with disabilities, I'd rather spend all of my time talking with them, going out for walks, watching movies, whatever -- not scrubbing the floors.

    • Zuska says:

      Maybe you would not want to spend all your time scrubbing floors, but a home health aide can do the sorts of routine chores that need done and that free up you and/or the person with a disability to have more time for the fun things. And that gives a job to someone. Preferably, at a living wage. To my mind, a job for another human being that brings them into interaction with the elderly or disabled is preferable to a robot anything.

      • anon says:

        "robot anything" is, in of itself, something that can produce jobs. Jobs in the tech industry. That is not a bad thing. I agree that improvements can be made in caring for elderly and disabled folks in a manner that does not put such a burden on their family members. In fact, there are many out there who rely on family members for such care, because any other type of care is not an affordable option. If caregivers could make a decent wage, where do you suggest this wage comes from? Only rich people?

        • Zuska says:

          In my utopia, people who do work that builds society - childcare, teaching, care for the elderly/disabled, for starters - are paid a living wage, have health care & pensions. Football players don't make millions, there are no Kardashians, or Koch brothers either. Universities don't starve out the humanities & put all their eggs in the sci/tech basket because we demand a government that values & funds education. Everybody takes turns cleaning toilets and emptying trash cans and the money is there to pay the needed staff because we insist on it being allocated so. Universal health care would include elder care, child care, the needs of the disabled. Hey, it's my utopia, why not.

  • becca says:

    Sorry, but I can't agree. The more poop-removal we can automate, the better. Diapering or bedpan cleaning (of youngsters or oldsters) should be done by robot. Sanitizing robot.
    Do you propose we go back to chamber pots for all, just so we can 'create jobs' to empty them? Or outhouses, so we can hire people to dig the holes and fill them up? (I'm not sure why that's better than water treatment plants and plumbers, but hey)

    Most robots are silly, and not going to solve practical problems for poor people anytime soon. People of all kinds *need* human contact (although some of that social interaction gets skewed oddly when money changes hands; psychologists are not substitutes for friends). And I'd say yes, YES! to the living wage stuff for caretaker jobs.
    BUT, the dichotomy between 'technology and no jobs' on one hand and 'jobs and people' on the other is a false one.

    In my Utopia, we have robots to do all the boring stuff (including pipetting, dish washing, and toilet cleaning). Everyone has leisure time, and "valuing education" means not just funding a plethora of schooling options for the youngsters, but ensuring that everybody of all ages and descriptions gets access to books, art supplies, lab equipment, gym facilities, musical instruments, internets, sewing machines, telescopes...
    It's not that people shouldn't specialize for jobs, it's that privileging some jobs as prestigious and denying the means of production for those jobs to a select few is morally objectionable. And possibly stupid.

  • My parents would have been able to keep my grandmother at home longer if they'd had robotic help to say, lift her. But once my sister moved out, they were too frail themselves to do a lot of the heavy care-taking, and could not afford the home health care needed on a daily basis.

  • skeptifem says:

    The preference for human caregivers might be totally cultural. Some places (like japan) are all about automation and robotics.

    I don't understand why health aides should be considered companionship professionals instead of health professionals. They aren't trained for that shit. If they were then they would need to get paid more (as in a decent wage to begin with). Maybe it would work better to have companionship be considered important enough to merit its own professionals, and then robots could be used to fulfill other functions.

  • anony mouse says:

    But ultimately for things to advance here we need to get better at doing more stuff with less person hours. I would expect these robots would be like industrial machinery; they will not replace the operator, but like a steam shovel or CNC milling machine they will allow one operator to do thousands of times more in the same time than a shovel or manual milling machine.

    However we have the perpetual problem of the capitalist class being the ones that "own" the equipment, and therefore getting most of the benefits of it, while those people who used to do those jobs are left out in the cold etc. Those are social problems that really need to be fixed no matter how you go about it.

    If a development is beneficial to society overall, then there will be enough to compensate those workers fully for any and all re-training etc, and still have a profit. If it is not a net benefit then we don't need it now do we. So fundamentally, these problems re: loosing jobs through automation can be solved, and I don't consider job loss to be a good reason to not adopt such equipment in itself. Although of course the realities on the ground must be considered and it might make sense to stomp on something for tactical reasons while we get the root problems solved.