Robots Or Us?

In 1949 Norbert Weiner, a mathematics professor at MIT and founder of the science of cybernetics, wrote an essay on the machine age, in which he considered the consequences of technology. In his conclusions he stated, “the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do … if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it wrongly than to use it rightly, more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently.”

A recent New York Times article reviewed one of the latest hot technologies, the development of robots to provide comfort, care, and assistance for the elderly and disabled. Some day the robots could bathe, dole out medication, provide companionship, and perform myriad other chores. Families would be relieved of the burden of providing care or of hiring caregivers, raising moral and ethical issues.

Should we entrust anyone to the impersonal care of robots? Would we want to interact with robots rather than humans when we get old? Do we need the human touch? Robots can substitute for us in performing boring, repetitive, and laborious tasks. They can be designed to act and respond like humans in particular situations. But they cannot provide the comfort and understanding, the warmth and empathy that is unique to living, feeling beings.

Is technology conditioning us to substitute mechanical for human touch? We are comfortable with technology, which makes it easy to communicate remotely, but it substitutes for direct personal interaction. Texting and tweeting is more often superficial or inane rather than substantive and our devices are addictive. People walking along or sitting together at a restaurant, talking or texting on their cell phones rather than interacting with their companions, are a common sight. Parents at school presentations often are more attentive to their cell phones than to their children’s performances. Behavior once considered rude, now seems almost acceptable.

Are we becoming narcissists? If so, perhaps we will be content with robots as friends and caregivers. Even now they can take over some chores and allow us more free time. They soon may free us of responsibility for care of elderly relatives and perhaps even our own children. Today children spend their early lives in day care, and then move on to school, sports, and other organized activities with minimal personal interaction with family members. This is a necessity at times, but often a choice. If robots are able to provide child care, will we choose to start and end life in the care of robots?

What will we become as people and as a society if we continue to devalue personal interaction, and robots become readily available to free us of responsibility for others, allowing us total self-indulgence? Will we prefer robots, rather than friends and relatives who may be less compliant, to indulge us? Will we affirm Weiner’s conclusions?

One thought on “Robots Or Us?

  1. Beatrice

    As you point out, parents in the U.S. workforce rely heavily on institutional care for their children, and children rely on institutional care for their parents. In Spring 2011, one quarter of all preschoolers in the U.S. were in an organized care facility. This fraction has varied between 20 and 30 percent since 1985—so we are not talking about a new phenomenon. Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011
    Ten years ago, 12% of all nursing home residents had been there five years or longer. Number and Percent Distribution of Nursing Home Residents For many years already, contracting with strangers to care for our young children and elderly parents has freed the workforce to be more productive. Turning to machines instead of strangers will eventually lower the cost of care and further increase productivity, but is productivity all that matters in our society?

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