“Robots to look after elderly in care homes…”
That was the only bit of the headline that I saw as I dived out of the shop this morning on my way to work. As a carer. Granted, the implication was that this was a futuristic premise… a possibility yet to manifest… but even so, I was, I admit, entirely and immediately judgemental… and that was before I had time to come home and do a bit of research.
Once I had, I was fuming.
To be fair to those who think this is a wonderful idea, they do not, as yet, intend to replace actual carers with robotic artificial intelligence, though I get the feeling that is only because the technology is, as yet, insufficiently advanced or affordable. One of these robots costs more than I, and many carers, will earn in a year. But it is not some forward-looking pipe dream…these things are already in service.
Southend on Sea introduced a robot to run reminiscence groups for dementia patients. They are, apparently, ‘convinced that digital technology is where the future lies for social care’ and plan to introduce the robot carer into care homes and sheltered accommodation, with the primary aim of providing companionship…instead of an actual person taking time during their working day to do so. Obviously, this means that existing staff will have more time to do all the things the robot cannot… and fewer extra staff will need to be hired to cover the shortfall. Economically, at least, it makes perfect sense.
The robots can do very little to help ease the workload of carers. They can, however, learn a person’s likes and dislikes and tailor conversations based upon stored and digitally interpreted memories. They can also use their screens to display their ‘feelings’, according to one article, and can recognise and respond to a person’s changing moods, offering ‘culturally appropriate care support’.
One of Southend’s coucillors is reported as saying the she has ‘met Pepper’, their robot, and ‘he is cute, kind, engaging…’. Now, correct me if I am out of line here, but either AI has come an awful long way overnight, or there is something very odd about that statement. You do not ‘meet’ a machine, nor does it have a gender. It may be cute, it may even be engaging… but it cannot possibly be kind. That is an essentially human quality.
AI can be programmed to replicate human emotions and display them accordingly… it cannot feel emotions, it has no feelings. And that is my sticking point.
I love the advances we have made in technology. I do think there will be more and more robotic assistance in healthcare… and that it may even, when perfected, be subject to less error than human beings in the delivery of medication, medical observation and even things as complex as microsurgery. What it cannot ever do, though, is replace the warmth of a real, human presence.
I have been very ill in the past. I have watched my son fight his way out of a coma. In both cases, my abiding memory is of the human presence… the hand that held mine when the world was a whirling mass of pain and confusion, the hands that held fast to my son and drew him back to himself with love. Voices that reach through the fog with real kindness and compassion and eyes that meet your own with empathy, lending you their strength until you find your own.
I do not think that cold metal and plastic will ever be able to replace that. And I have to wonder how many lonely people in these care homes will simply give up. Their medical needs may be met by the staff, but if their needs as human beings, for a contact that goes smile to smile, heart to heart and soul to soul is foisted upon an unfeeling robot, will life really be worth living?
Economically, perhaps that makes sense too. But not the kind of sense I would want for my loved ones, myself or any other human soul.
There is healing in the touch of a human hand, a light that passes eye to eye, a glow that comes from shared memories and experiences that no robot will ever know. What can it share in those quiet moments when the heart opens but pre-programmed platitudes? No matter how many databases it may access, it cannot remember what it felt like to be a child or to bring one to birth, nor the exhilaration of achievement, the smell of new-mown grass, or watching Andy Pandy and the Woodentops on the old black and white TV. It does not know what it feels like to be in love or to lose a loved one. And no matter how ‘cuturally appropriate’ its responses may be, it knows nothing of regret, of faith, of fear or of hope.
There is undoubtedly a place for artificial intelligence. But never as a substitute for another human being whose heart, hand and smile can reach out and touch yours.
Do we, as a society, really value the elderly, the infirm and the lonely so little that we no longer have the desire or the time to care? Is this really what we want for our loved ones? And have those who think this a good idea really thought it through… for it will not be long before we, and they, are the elderly and the ones in need of care.
There was a time, not so long ago, when our elders were accorded respect for their contribution to the life of the family and the greater community; they taught the young, shared their own life-lessons and experience, passed down the accumulated wisdom of decades and shared the knowledge and stories gleaned from their own elders. Now they can share all that with robots.
We may as well be throwing them on the scrap heap…
I ask again, what next?