How to annihilate the New York Times' call for "robot caregivers"

Grandma doesn't need a robot, argues Zeynep Tufekci. She needs a humane world

By Andrew Leonard

Published July 22, 2014 3:42PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Salon)
(Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Salon)

Get ready for robot caregivers, argues Louise Aronson, an associate professor of geriatics at the University of California, San Francisco, in the New York Times Sunday Review. "A reliable robot may be better than an unreliable or abusive person, or than no one at all."

Aronson offers up a laundry list of reasons why robot caregivers are a great idea. They'll never get bored or impatient with that senior suffering from dementia or Alzheimers. They don't require sleep so they'll be on guard 24/7. They'll never screw up medication dosages.

But the biggest argument for robot caregivers is that we need them. We do not have anywhere near enough human caregivers for the growing number of older Americans. Robots could help solve this work-force crisis by strategically supplementing human care. Equally important, robots could decrease high rates of neglect and abuse of older adults by assisting overwhelmed human caregivers and replacing those who are guilty of intentional negligence or mistreatment.

It's an interesting proposition, the notion that robots can "solve" a work-force crisis by taking over jobs formerly provided by humans. I would be tempted to challenge the argument, were it not for the fact that on Tuesday morning, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina's iSchool, absolutely demolished it in a stunning tour de force published on Medium, Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Came For Grandma: Why "caregiver robots" are both inhuman and economically destructive.

Tufekci takes direct aim at Aronson's "biggest argument" and reduces it to rubble. The reason that "we do not have anywhere near enough human caregivers for the growing number of older Americans" has little to do with how hard the job is or how tough it is to cope with dementia on a daily basis. It has everything to do with how little we compensate caregivers. It's a function of capitalism -- and so is the drive to replace human labor with machines.

...[M]achines don’t replace humans under conditions of prosperity for all humans — they do so under capitalist market conditions in which machines are chosen because they are cheaper and more docile than humans: they don’t object, talk back, organize, strike, slack. And people made redundant by machines aren't given the choice of spending their [free time] in leisure or learning the next set of skills that humans will take refuge in.

As robots move up the value chain, argues Tufekci, we will see this economic logic play out again and again. A future of robot caregivers is not just bleak, but a betrayal.

In my view, warehousing elderly and children — especially children with disabilities — in rooms with machines that keep them busy, when large numbers of human beings around the world are desperate for jobs that pay a living wage, is worse than the Dickensian nightmares of mechanical industrialization, it’s worse than the cold, alienated workplaces depicted by Kafka.

It’s an abdication of a desire to remain human, to be connected to each other through care, and to take care of each other.

Read the whole thing. It's great.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Elder Care Jobs New York Times Nyt Robot Caregivers Robots