People are capable of establishing intimate bonds with animals so why not with robots if, for instance, they are ready to assist at their bedside? On the other hand, there are enough reasons to justify why robots cannot ever become substitutes for human contact.
image With the ageing population the demand for care will only increase in the decades to come. That demand will bring with it expensive labour costs and so it is logical to consider automation. There are already robots that distribute the meals in hospitals or administer patient’s tablets. In the care sector there is also the cuddly robot Paro that can comfort the elderly or give them something to look after. One might presume that this is merely the start. “The logical fear is to worry that if robots become widely deployed people’s concern for others will diminish”, Dr Mark Coeckelbergh notes. “But the reality is that carers are now often so short of time that they already devote precious little attention to their patients. If robots are therefore employed for routine chores then the quality of care can only improve.”
“Can”, Coeckelbergh stresses, for it is equally thinkable that robots may one day replace human attention. “People may start to think: we don’t have to visit grandpa because, after all, he’s got a robot to keep him company.”
“Though people are certainly capable of building up relationships with robots” one need only think of the virtual robots in online worlds such as Second Life “it will always be different from human contact. At the end of the day, having a close relationship with a cat or a dog is also a substitute for human contact but many people are happy with such surrogates. It is not unthinkable that someone who has trouble establishing relationships may be content with a sex robot, if only to pluck up the courage needed for real live dates.
Coeckelbergh is therefore trying to view robots in a broader light. “At micro level the direct relationships between humans and robots are often examined but one must also look at the influence that robots have on society. What is good care? From that point of view one must consider the contribution that robots can make whilst bearing in mind that the mere existence of robots is something that can change our view on matters.”
In situations where robots start to get more and more like people the reverse can also be seen to happen: people can become technologically adapted. As long as it is all about technological aids that compensate for handicaps, like for instance a prosthetic robot arm, that is generally accepted. However, if an otherwise healthy individual decides to “improve” himself by opting for what is known as “human enhancement” then people start to question the desirability of such moves. One might think of futuristic issues such as a hard disc in one’s brain for extra memory capacity but there are also contemporary issues such as drug taking among athletes.
The latter practice is generally thought to be unfair as it gives such individuals advantages over their competitors. If that is the case one might also question whether it is unfair to, for instance, improve one’s position on the job market by having medical intervention. “Even without human enhancement there are greater discrepancies in the access to technology”, says Coeckelbergh. “That is something we easily dismiss.”
The relationship that people have with robots, be they independent entities or part of a person’s body, are not so much determined by technology as by people’s opinions. In a society where robots are common property it becomes more natural to develop positive attitudes towards them, certainly if they come to clean your bed or take your blood pressure.