Should a Robot Take Care of Your Grandma?

My roommate and I were having a lighthearted chat about novel technologies and their effects on human evolution, the potential for autonomous AIs, and the disembodiment of sociality brought about by social media. She was decrying the coldness and inhumanity that she perceives as an outgrowth of these phenomena, and brought up the introduction, in Japan, of robot caregivers for the elderly.*  Japan is, of course, a natural place for humanoid robots to replace human workers: It has a demographically skewed society in which the old outnumber the young, as well as what is probably the robot-friendliest culture on earth.

I argued that robot workers are a logical solution to the problem of labor shortages in a society facing demographic collapse; she countered that immigration was a better one. Japan’s notorious aversion to immigrants aside, what’s more inhumane – using robot labor, or immigrant labor? People who leave their families, communities, and homelands to care for other people’s relatives generally do so out of economic desperation. As someone who has worked as a caregiver for the elderly, I can say with assurance that it is an extremely difficult job in which the challenges outnumber the rewards. Even for those who are deeply invested in the wellbeing of the elders in question (their own children, for example) the challenges associated with caring for people who are physically and mentally compromised – and who will only continue to decline – are massive. Bathing incontinent old people, dealing with the rage, confusion, and inability to perform basic tasks that accompany dementia, is a job for family members with lots of time on their hands or for people who are desperate for money. I recognize that there are many caregivers who are passionate about what they do, who genuinely love the elderly and don’t mind the unpleasant aspects of the job. But they’re in the minority, and they’re never paid enough.

The very structure that necessitates hiring caregivers for the elderly – as opposed to having relatives care for them at home – strikes me as anti-humanistic. We practice medical heroics and don’t let people die,  their relatives are too busy/disinterested to care for them, elders are accorded low social value and perceived as burdensome. If we’re really talking about what’s best for the elderly, the roots of the issue need to be examined: Is it intrinsically less compassionate to have robots that care for them than to warehouse them in nursing homes, to relegate them to social irrelevance, to keep them alive long after their bodies and minds are robustly functional?

And what of the workers? Well-educated young people don’t want to wipe folks’ bums for a living. In order to have enough labor to perform service jobs (eldercare,  childcare, customer service) you either need a substantial indigenous underclass willing to work for low wages, or immigrants who are desperate enough to leave their communities and families in an attempt to achieve financial security.

This line of inquiry bring us around to another fundamental question – is it morally sound for humans to do labor that would be better suited to robots (the question of robot rights is a whole ‘nother can of worms that I’m not going to get into in this post)? The argument can be made that there is dignity and value in caring for elders. But other types of dirty, dangerous, or disgusting jobs – cleaning toilets, for instance, or plucking chickens – have few redemptive qualities to make up for their dehumanizing nature. With our ever-growing technological capabilities, shouldn’t there be an ethical imperative to free humans from such drudgery?

“Yes,” you might say, “but people need jobs!” The only reason human workers still dominate in service jobs is that they are, for now, cheaper than robots: Automation has already taken the place of human labor in many industries. Plus, many of the jobs that are available don’t actually enable workers to support themselves.

Of course, there are no easy answers to these questions. But here’s a few thoughts: The elderly deserve better than to be shoved to the margins of society, regardless of who’s taking care of them. Given the poor working conditions and low wages associated with professional caregiving, using  robot caregivers is not inherently less humane than using human workers. The type of society I’d like to see – in which humans are freed from drudgery and want and are instead given the opportunity to satisfy their material needs by doing meaningful, dignified work – is almost certainly quixotic pie-in-the-sky. Finally: As someone who cleans houses for a living, I would be delighted to be made obsolete by a robot.

*While their use is not yet widespread, it’s trending that way.

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