The Robots Are Already Here

The Robots Are Already Here

By Walter Greenleaf, PhD

Distinguished Visiting Scholar,
MediaX Program, Stanford University

The robots are here.

We don’t notice them. When we withdraw money from our bank, using an automatic teller, it is a robot that helps us. When we search a topic on the Internet, it is robotic–software that does the searching for us. Recent cars have robotic systems to parallel park for us, and to avoid collisions. The ingredients in the salad that I had for lunch were picked, cleaned, packaged and delivered to my grocery store with the help of robots. No one seems to mind these robots – we barley notice them.

Will they remove our dignity?
It is different though, when we consider the use of robots as personal assistants and care givers. Many people worry that the use of automatic machines to help us with our daily activities will become a problem – that despite their utility, robots will serve to isolate us from human contact, and perhaps demean us by ignoring our individuality.

Loss of dignity is a valid concern.
Worrying about isolation and the loss of dignity is a very valid concern; like any tool, robots function with the constraints of their design. And yes, unless we design them otherwise, the use of robots as caregivers will isolate us. Having robots take care of us will make us feel like an object, and in some ways diminished by the experience. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Appropriate design is the answer.
The key concept here is this: We need to design caregiving robots so that they promote and improve our lives. We must carefully design caregiving robots to foster and enhance communication and connection with our friends and family. All caregiving robots must have, at their core; well designed behaviors, a user–interface that conveys respect, warmth, carefulness, and perhaps a bit of humor. These are design features, and there is no reason to prevent us – as consumers and as a community – from requiring that all caregiving robots adhere to our carefully considered design requirements.

Why not make appropriate design a requirement?
It is not unusual for government and public policy to set the standards for the technology that impacts our daily lives. For example, we have in place very strict provisions requiring safety and personal privacy in our medical devices. There is no reason to not extend these requirements to include the design requirements for all robotic systems involved in caregiving.

Technology can isolate, but technology can also connect.

As a culture we now have had decades of experience with interactive media, online games, email and text messages. This is more than enough time for it to be abundantly clear that interactive technology is a double–edged sword. It can certainly serve to isolate people; there are many who spend a large proportion of their time typing and texting online to the extent that they withdraw from personal interaction. Yet interactive technology can also serve to foster social connections via meet–ups, online communities, and shared online activities. Friends and family members who live at ta distance form each other can leverage technology to stay in touch and share their lives (via Skype, Instagram, Facebook, online virtual worlds, etc) in ways that were impossible a decade ago. The key concept here is that it is the design and deployment of the technology that sends it down the path of fostering isolation vs fostering connectivity. We can use this principal to better guide the design and development of robots that help with caregiving.

We don’t have a choice. And we should start now.

It is important that we start as soon as possible to elaborate the proper design principals to guide the development of robotic technology for caregiving. Because the need is huge. With the rapid growth of an elderly population, many of who will have chronic health conditions, the timing is immediate. For both humanitarian and financial reasons, we must begin to design and develop supportive robotic technology for caregiving. It will take decades to develop reliable and fully effective systems. If we start right now to elaborate and memorialize the appropriate design principals, we can get a running start on the problem, and also start things out in the right direction by instilling the virtues of connectivity and dignity into the basic foundational designs.

Many will benefit.

In the decades to come, it is likely that the development of caregiving robots will allow many people to continue to live at home rather than moving into an assisted living facility. Or perhaps stay with assisted living rather than move to a skilled nursing facility. In that manner, caregiving robots will serve a welcome and valued role in our healthcare system and our society.

Opting out should always be an option.

However, there will be some individuals who, for religious or personal reasons, will not want to accept the help of robots, no matter how well designed. Therefore, it is important that we establish mechanisms that will allow those who do not want robotic assistance to opt out of robotic care. Perhaps this is an item that should be included in individual advanced–care directives.

If we start now, we can manage the upcoming crisis with dignity.
The looming crisis in elder–care is inevitable. One need only to look at the existing demographics, and it is clear that we will not be able to take care of the upcoming generations of seniors and elderly needing assistance using existing methods. There will not be enough facilities, nor enough caregivers to handle the growing ranks of those needing care. Appropriate use of technology is the only answer. We need to start designing that technology now, and we need to first elaborate the guiding principals by which caregiving robots are designed. A commitment to dignity is or utmost importance, and should be woven into all regulatory standards. A second key principal is that all caregiving technology should be designed in such a way as to foster community and family connectivity, and to reduce social isolation. We cannot predict the exact way that caregiving technology will evolve over the next decade, but if we evolve and exert the appropriate design principals now, we will be shaping the future so as to better provide for dignity, and to reduce social isolation.





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