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Can robots replace human caregivers?

We have something that machines are yet to replicate - empathy. Yet, caregiving is also hard work, tedious, awkwardly intimate, and physically and emotionally exhausting.

The Editorial Board   |     |   Published 26.08.18, 12:00 AM

A friend in need is a friend indeed. Finding such an all-weather friend, though, is no mean feat. But technology rushes in where man fears to tread. Technology's latest innovation, companion robots, are programmed to replicate the human touch. From reminding the infirm to take their medicines to emitting beeps and bloops while 'conversing' with the aged, the abandoned and even the demented, robot caregivers are increasingly filling up the gaping hole left in the lives of people by the absence of human companionship. The latest victims of such neglect are children - parents, often busy chasing greener pastures opened up by the fourth industrial revolution, have little time to spare for simple pleasures like reading with their offspring. This is where an invention like Minnie comes in. Minnie, a robot reading buddy with oversized black eyes, is programmed to be an interested listener - it can react, summarize and appear thoughtful about the text being read to it. Amidst the bleakness of a world where technology is devouring little joys like reading, the creation of Minnie is a ray of hope. In using the machine itself to reclaim lost ground, Minnie's developers may have come up with an idea to neuter the technological attractions - such as gaming devices - that threaten older pleasures.

While Minnie could well bring cheer to publishers, the same cannot be said of the caregiving industry. In a world where more and more jobs are falling prey to automation, caregiving was one of the last bastions where humans had an upper hand. For humans have something that machines are yet to replicate - empathy. Yet, caregiving is also hard work; more often than not, it is tedious, awkwardly intimate and physically and emotionally exhausting. It is also unpaid or low wage labour and has adverse health consequences. But these problems are resolved when the caregiver is a machine. Empathy and the ability to feel pain - man's most potent weapons - seem to be within automation's reach as well. Pepper, a caregiver prototype, can recognize principal human emotions and adapt his behaviour accordingly. Another area where human judgment was thought to be a key requirement was medicine. There too, robots are edging their creators out. Even the most basic walking robots are becoming indispensable in rehabilitation after strokes and fractures, not to mention the importance of robotic technology in cutting-edge surgery and disease detection. Although the idea that machines could help meet more than just physical needs is still contested by medical professionals, there are advantages that cannot be overlooked. Take, for example, the potential of robot caregivers to bring down the rates of neglect and abuse of elderly patients by uncaring or overworked staff. Surgeons can do with a lot more help from automation - the da Vinci medical console, a technological marvel, has taken some of the strain away from surgeons and, incredibly, made the idea of satellite surgery feasible.

Given the ratio of risks to benefits, it is evident that robots are here to stay. Instead of dwelling on whether robots would enslave humans in the future, the trick would be to channel the gifts bestowed by technology in a way that suits their makers. As long as man can find new things for machines to do, the latter will not be able to render humanity obsolete.

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