By Magdalena Priemer
With the rapid improvement in the field of autonomous robots, new applications for robotic use are becoming possible. While being able to perform tasks that up to now have been done by human workers, robots increasingly find their way into our daily lives. This trend provides a lot of opportunities for the improvement of working conditions and a better use of human work time, but concurrently it also bears the risk of replacing employees due to financial interest and by using robots for tasks for which social interaction is highly important.
As with all new inventions, usage is the key to value. There needs to be a discussion about the social and ethical influences new technologies have, because the field is growing fast and it would be a pity to not use the huge possibilities robotics has, by focusing solely on cost reduction and therefore maybe even worsen conditions they could have improved. This can be illustrated by the example of robots in the health care sector. On one hand, they are strongly needed there, for example to support nurses with hard tasks like moving patients or to run errands. On the other hand, this is a sector where social interaction is highly important.
Nowadays all industrial cultures face the problem of an increasingly aging population. Unlike a hundred years ago, the elderly usually do not get cared for by their relatives, but live in nursing homes. Hospitals also face a growing number of older patients, often for a long stay, with increasing tendency. The facilities lack money, and therefore human resources, to properly care for the elderly, not in a medical but in a social way. Robots can help reduce the workload of the nurses and therefore increase the time they can spend with their patients. Theoretically.
One example is the robot TUG that was developed by Aethon. It can autonomously find its way through a facility and delivers food, linen and medicine and is already used in several American hospitals. The San Francisco Medical Center purchased 25 TUGs and installed for around $6 million. They estimate that the investment will give a good return within 2 years due to reduced costs. But if a hospital saves $6 million in two years, one has to wonder where the money comes from. These robots perform tasks that previously had been done by people and though the money saved might be used well in a hospital, autonomous robots will replace work forces in other establishments too, as long as it is cost-effective. Sooner or later there will therefore be a new group of unemployed and mainly unskilled people and it surely won’t be an easy task for society to handle.
Another example is Paro, a cute and fluffy baby harp seal therapeutic robot. Developed by Takanori Shibata of the Intelligent System Research Institute of Japan’s AIST, it has been sold since 2004 as a therapy tool for dementia patients and as a companion for lonely elderly people. Moving its head in the direction of their voice, closing its eyes or moving its tail when petted, making noises like a real baby seal, sleeping at night and being active during the day, Paro is designed to replace a pet that its owner can’t care for any more. Robots for social interaction are not a new phenomenon. The Furby, for example, is a toy children have loved and still adore today, but the Furby never compensated for human interaction. Paro might be a good therapy tool, a game patients play to stay mentally fit, but it can never replace real human or animal interaction. And if Paro is used to make elderly people feel like they are having a social life when they actually aren’t, we are treating only symptoms and not the cause. And, to make matters worse, we’re treating them like an annoyance.
Robots create a lot of opportunities as well as a lot of new social and ethical questions to deal with. Since we know some of the problems that can arise, it is better to focus on them now, while they can still be avoided.
Student at Technikum Wien University