A recent article in the New York Times explored how robots are being used to care for and support older and disabled people and the roles they might take in the future. It introduces us, for example, to Paro, an artificial baby seal being used to provide comfort to people recovering from strokes. If responses on Twitter are anything to go by, most people find this a depressing concept. Not me!
The argument put forward by those who find this depressing goes something like this. Robots take the human element out of care and support, fobbing people off with artificial relationships and interactions with technology rather than people. To rely on technology is to undervalue those needing care and support and to shun our responsibility to them.
If it were a mutually exclusive choice between robots and humans, and if robots could not be used to facilitate human to human interaction, I might agree. But it is not. If robots can be used to undertake some of the routine, difficult and unpleasant aspects of care and support, it would free up time, energy and other resources for humans to focus upon social interaction.
Now, let me take you on a quick trip into the future to meet Gulliver, my robotic interpreter and guide.
It’s a beautiful warm July morning and I feel like a walk. I clip Gulliver to the armrest of my wheelchair, slip on the fingerbraille gloves Gulliver uses to communicate with me, and tell Gulliver where I want to go. I set out, self-propelling my wheelchair, whilst Gulliver automatically adjusts the resistance on each wheel to steer, making sure that I keep a good line on the pavement and safely manoeuvre around obstacles. As we approach roads, Gulliver slows the wheelchair and then does a long, firm vibration to warn me that I need to stop. Gulliver checks in all directions for oncoming traffic and, once there is none, he vibrates twice gently, inviting me to continue.
Somebody walks past us and smiles. Gulliver vibrates gently and fingerbrailles a smiley to alert me. I smile back.
Whilst out, I decide to pop into a shop to buy some salad. I tell Gulliver what I want and he guides me to it, then fingerbrailles to direct me to reach out in the correct direction to pick it off the shelf. Then he tells me the price and use by date. At the checkout, Gulliver automatically adjusts his microphone to pick up what the cashier says and interprets it into fingerbraille for me.
When I return home, my neighbour is in his front garden and calls to me. Gulliver vibrates gently once to alert me, manoeuvres so I’m in the best position for speaking to my neighbour, then vibrates once firmly to tell me to stop. With Gulliver interpreting, my neighbour and I have a conversation.
Far from fobbing me off with artificial interactions with technology, Gulliver has enabled me, on this one trip, to have three social interactions with real live human beings.
Gulliver is there, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. I can go out and interact with people whenever I want. If somebody comes to the door unexpectedly, or if I need to call a plumber in an emergency, Gulliver is there, ready to enable that. I do not have to plan my life weeks in advance to fit around the schedule of a communicator-guide: I can be spontaneous, safe in the knowledge that Gulliver is there at the ready. As long as I remember to charge his batteries, he never tires. He never gets grumpy. At least, that is, unless someone asks him if I take sugar.
Liz Ball is Campaigns Involvement Officer at Sense