Caring Robots--This Really Is an Oxymoron


I started reading an article in the New Yorker about medical robots just before I went to bed last night and by the time I has finished it was way later than my usual time to turn off the light. I don’t normally remember my dreams in the morning, but I awoke to visions of robots like Wall-E, the central character in that wonderful movie about what happens when the Earth can’t support human life any more. The story told by Jerome Groopman, weaver of many wonderful tales about medicine, focuses on the current development of medical robots, but not the kind that surgeons use to improve the efficacy of their procedures, but a new kind, designed to take care of people with affective dysfunctions, like autism or moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

The technology is extraordinary, even at this early stage of development. The robots are designed to mimic typical relational human responses, like dropping the head or moving closer or farther away. Depending on the signals received from the human subject, the robot changes its behavior. “‘We actually had the robot slightly shift its personality, gradually, while interacting with the user,’ Matarić [the developer] said.’ The theory behind their development is that patients with these kinds of affective dysfunction often relate badly to other human beings, and work better with the robots.

The first part of the article focused on the mechanics and the technology, per se. Very impressive. The robots described in the story were being used to guide patients in exercises to help them improve motor skills, including speech.

Three years ago, CosmoBot, a robot produced by AnthroTronix, a Maryland-based startup, was introduced at the Neurodevelopmental Diagnostic Center for Young Children, in Crofton, Maryland, serving children with autism and with genetic disorders that affect the nervous system. CosmoBot is a Wizard of Oz robot that is externally controlled by a therapist; it has an elliptical head and the ability to swivel, in order to change its gaze. “The robot performs a motor action in a highly predictable way, repeating exactly the same sequence over and over,” Carole Samango-Sprouse, the director of the center, explained. The robot is captivating and toylike, she said, and less stressful than human demonstration, in which minor variations can seem extreme and disturbing for a child with learning or behavioral difficulties.

My standard critique about technology and its potentially stultifying effects on humans did not seem to apply to these devices, until I got toward the end and read what Sherry Turkle had to say. Turkle, well-known for her criticism of computers and other devices for suppressing human qualities, is very concerned about the possibility of negative consequences.

Thirty years ago, Turkle began studying the impact of sophisticated technologies, including virtual-reality computer games and robots, on emotional development in children and social relationships among adults. “I am not a Luddite,” Turkle said. “But there is no upside to being socialized by a robot.” Based on her observation of groups of different ages, Turkle has found that “children and the elderly start to relate to the object as a person. They begin to love it, and nurture it, and feel they have to attend to the robot’s inner state.” With this attachment and projection of their emotions, Turkle says, people begin to seek reciprocity, wanting the robot to care for them. “We were wired through evolution to feel that when something looks us in the eye, then someone is at home in it.” … Robots, Turkle argues, risk distorting the meaning of relationships, the bonds of love, and the types of emotional accommodation required to form authentic human attachments.

Sustainability rests on recovering the fundamental human sense of care. Caring is at the heart of what it is to be human. Affective dysfunction, no matter what the detailed medical description says, is a failure to appreciate the foundational place of care. Such cases usually evoke a feeling of sadness, which I would attribute to the recognition of the absence of the ability to care. Machines can be designed to mimic just about every visible facet of human behavior, but not what happens inside where caring springs from. Alan Turing developed a test to determine whether computers could think or not. None have yet passed. Eventually when someone invents a similar test to discover whether robots can care or not, I am quite confident that the robots will also flunk.

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lauren raine said:

I enjoyed your article about robots; as someone in my 60's, I also remember a world without computers. It seems to me that sustainability is about awareness, on every level, of reciprocal relationships that exist within an ever widening community of being, whether that is a small family,a neighborhood, an ecological environment, or a way of imagining our planet, our Gaia. I find that I often have concerns for the kind of "virtual" world that sometimes seems to be within the possibility of evolving.