When I talk to people about AI, inevitably we land on the topic of killer robots. This image of The Terminator and other superintelligent technology that is “out to get us” is a staple in science fiction. Our relationship to robots in the west has a long history of dystopian imagery. The word robot itself was first introduced in the 1920s in a play by Czech writer Karl Čapek called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). This was a time when the industrial revolution was causing upheavals in society as it moved from an agrarian economy to a greater focus on factories and the mass production of goods. Early automation made people fear for their jobs and their humanity. This is not unlike the fears we have today about artificial intelligence. In R.U.R., robots are at first, happy to work for humans but eventually they revolt, take over the world and basically extinguish humanity. The whole thing is available on Youtube if you want to check it out. I won’t fully discount the remote plausibility of a future robot uprising. However, in thinking about how and why we are already using robots, there’s another scenario unfolding that raises questions about both our relationship to technology and to other humans.
The answer to eldercare?
William Shatner, best known for his role as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, is now 90 years old. The former intergalactic playboy has recently declared that “getting old is terrifying”. His new song entitled Loneliness, explores his feelings about how “we are all essentially alone”.
One of the primary markets for robots is eldercare. The aging Baby Boom generation and longer life expectancies make seniors a growing market. At the same time, there is a lack of resources to support seniors' care. This is especially true in countries with a high elderly population such as Japan or Italy. Even pre-COVID-19, a range of companies saw the potential for this growing market sector. Now, the case is even stronger as concerns over both worker safety and preventing illness in senior populations make robotic caregivers an attractive option.
In their paper, Granny and robots: ethical issues in robot care for the elderly, Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey outline the use of robots in eldercare in the context of assistance (supporting physical tasks or mobility), monitoring (for health and safety) and companionship. They outline six ethical issues related to using robots in eldercare:
Reductions in human contact: It’s tempting to increasingly offload care to a robot both to reduce costs and to save time. Offloading care to a robot can absolve the responsibility for those tasked with providing care.
Objectification: In the process of cutting costs and gaining efficiencies, will seniors be seen as “just another input” in a business model and “just another task” for a robot?
Privacy: Monitoring via robots and the associated transfer of data can result in a loss of privacy.
Personal Liberty: Who is in charge - the robot or the senior? If a robot can predict and prevent a situation, will it override autonomy and personal choice? To what degree is this acceptable if at all?
Deception and infantilization: Can a robot really be a friend? If seniors have relationships with a robot and build attachments to these objects, what harms are being caused through this deception of friendship with an artefact?
Autonomy and control of robots: Whose interests will prevail - the senior being helped or the company that owns or manages the robot?
These are not easy questions to answer. The counter argument is that perhaps robots can also benefit seniors. Context is key. As Shannon Vallor, a philosopher of technology at the University of Edinburgh puts it “If someone wants to be given the answer to ‘Are social robots good for us?’ — that question is at the wrong level of granularity. The question should be ‘When are robots good for us? And how can they be bad for us?” (Samuel, 2020)
By Katrina Ingram, CEO, Ethically Aligned AI _______
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Ethically Aligned AI is a social enterprise aimed at helping organizations make better choices about designing and deploying technology. Find out more at ethicallyalignedai.com © 2021 Ethically Aligned AI Inc. All right reserved.
CBC/Radio Canada. (2021, August 10). 'Getting older IS terrifying': William Shatner on TURNING 90, loneliness and what keeps him going | CBC Radio. CBCnews. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/tuesday-april-6-2021-william-shatner-maria-bakalova-and-more-1.5974825/getting-older-is-terrifying-william-shatner-on-turning-90-loneliness-and-what-keeps-him-going-1.5974827.
Samuel, S. (2020, September 9). You can buy a robot to keep your lonely grandparents company. should you? Vox. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/9/9/21418390/robots-pandemic-loneliness-isolation-elderly-seniors.
Sharkey, A., & Sharkey, N. (2010, July 3). Granny and the robots: Ethical issues in robot care for the elderly. Ethics and Information Technology. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10676-010-9234-6.
YouTube. (2020, March 28). R.U.R. (Rossum's UNIVERSAL Robots) full play - Nyc performance. YouTube. Retrieved September 22, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-t_oI37K1B8.