Tired of dealing with poor bedside manner? Soon, you won’t have to anymore. Two years after Big Hero 6, we have our first Baymax prototypes — minus the flying and kungfu skills.
With the aging baby-boomer generation, there will be a sudden drop in the workforce and a spike in retired seniors who may increasingly require medical care and attention. This phenomenon is particularly prominent in countries like Japan where the workforce is expected to reduce by 50% by 2060. The demand for caregivers and medical staff seems almost impossible to meet.
To make matters worse, loneliness and depression is prevalent among the elderly as friends and family die and children leave home only to visit sporadically (if they have children at all), leaving many elderly citizens isolated, alone, and in need of not only medical but emotional and psychological attention.
The introduction of palliative care robots has been shown to have positive effects on the mental health of senior home residents.
Enter robots like Kirobo, Paro, and even one that can wash hair and give massages — all of which are more versatile and emotionally-aware than their more physically-oriented siblings (like Robear). There’s even a social companionship robot in the works that can help senior citizens eat more healthily and has reminders to seek human company when its “patient” goes too long without speaking to another human being. Handy, right?
The introduction of palliative care robots has been shown to have positive effects on the mental health of senior home residents. Paro, a therapeutic seal robot, has been proven to reduce loneliness in senior home residents. Residents often report that Paro seems to understand them and offers them some much-needed comfort.
But as we start relying more on the more convenient and less emotionally complicated robot conversation and companionship, will we lose something fundamental and defining as a species?
According to Livescience.com, Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor of social studies of science and technology and author of “Alone Together”, interviewed two teenage boys of the same age, one in 1983 and one in 2008, asking who they would rather talk to about their relationship problems — a robot or his dad. The teenage boy interviewed in 1983 chose his dad and not the robot because machines are unable to understand human emotion and relationships. However, the boy interviewed in 2008 said he would rather speak with a robot because the robot has access to a large database of information and could provide more accurate advice.
In light of her findings, Turkle is worried that we are gradually forgetting about the empathy, connections and attachments between humans. Those who have not yet forgotten, however, are the elderly who are more familiar with socializing with fellow humans. They maintain a preference for the human touch in many of the more social and intimate aspects of their daily care. Other studies have also found that we are more attracted to AIs that make mistakes (though intentional) and apologize because we feel like we can relate and empathize more with something that’s not perfect, that’s more like us.
Until a truly human-like AI can feel the same heart-wrenching pain, soul-lifting joy, and crushing disappointments of life like we can, robots can never truly replace the connection we have with each other. Socializing and communicating with a separate person can be a hassle, but is it right for us to create a sentient, sensitive being and force it to swallow the painful emotions that is our responsibility to bear as human beings but no longer want to shoulder? Will we unwittingly create a generation of emotional slaves, forever obliged to act as our punching bags and therapists but unable to express or act on their own frustrations? And is it right to force a lonely human being to settle with the companionship of mechanical beings?
Advances in robotics may be a temporary solution to the problem of our aging population and lack of a younger workforce, but we need to think beyond the next decade and decide how we should continue to grow and form connections with each other — not only with robots. We should not dump this responsibility solely on robotic inventions and excuse ourselves from what is proving to be a complicated, generational and economic problem.