Reboot the Babysitter: Robots as Caregivers
Many years ago, when Japan was at its technological and economic peak, the talk of manufacturing and employing robots to perform tasks that, seemingly no self-centered adult was able or willing to do (i.e. child rearing and caring for the elderly) served as evidence of both the technological world’s sophisticated rise and its apparent collective ethical lapse.
As tech culture becomes more fetishistic and far geekier than ever imagined, consumers and innovators alike continue to push the envelope and create synthetic human replacements to do their bidding. Using popular science fiction (i.e. The Twilight Zone, Phillip K. Dick, etc.) as a jumping off point, tech innovators in Japan have continued their robotic dominion of the field and presented concerned parents and over-burdened care givers with a multitude of mechanized baby sitter options that purportedly “watch over” infants and school-age children.
For example, a particular model developed by Japanese company Tmusk, apparently rounds up and entertains rambunctious youngsters that are dumped at the mall by their beleaguered parents. This particular robot is able to identify individual children, through the assistance of special bar coded tags worn by the children, tell age-appropriate jokes, and even boasts an integrated camera to both monitor the children and beam them special advertisements.
This is all standard, bizarro science fiction stuff unleashed on a hyper-consumer public, and frankly the odds of parents and caregivers being pushed out by a 2-meter tall robot are probably unlikely. But the larger, and more troubling, issues posing questions about the viability of delegating human care to robots by University of Sheffield roboticist Noel Sharkey in his editorial “The Ethical Frontiers of Robotics” in Science Magazine, reveal that while technology can craft robots willing to simulate care, we as a society are not exactly completely and principally up to speed with the future is now robotic options.
“What would happen if a parent were to leave a child in the safe hands of a future robot caregiver almost exclusively?” Sharkey asks in his editorial. “The truth is that we do not know what the effects of the long-term exposure of infants would be.”
But if we are to look back a few generations ago to psychologist Harry Harlow’s maternal-separation and social isolation experiments he conducted on rhesus monkeys, we could see distinct evidence of how, when deprived of direct maternal/parental contact even when basic needs were met, the infant rhesus monkeys suffered a great deal of distress and social maladjustment.
Is it safe to say that if we start swapping out caregivers and parents for robotic surrogates, the impact will reveal itself to us in the form of, possibly more personal free time, but more personal isolation and antisocial behavior? Should we scrap the whole project and reserve the robotic touch for house cleaning and coffee making, or should we just simply embrace our robot caregivers/overlords and allow them to teach us a thing or two about being human?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.