Caring for robots: How assistive robotics may change our homes
Who will care for us in the future? According to many politicians, scientists and market analysts, it could be machines. Machines that will change our diapers, and spend time with us once we are old. As a result, the question of who should be caring for us in the future is stirring up harsh debates on alienation and human nature. However, another type of question remains unasked: If robots should eventually populate society, who will be caring for them? If the vision of care robots becomes reality, we will not only be caring for humans but for robots, too. Or to put it another way: the most important is not whether we want robots or not, but rather, how do we want care with robots to be?
The way we currently envision robots entering our lives reminds me of the German fairy tale “Heinzelmännchen.” In this famous legend, good-natured house elves, the Heinzelmännchen, carry out the domestic work for citizens of Cologne. Nobody has seen them, as they work at night. Only the result of their nocturnal work bears witness to their existence. Our account of robots is quite similar. In policy papers and university brochures, robots are advertised as highly adaptive machines that would adjust to the needs of humans — not the other way around. Like the citizens of Cologne, we believe since the robots’ work is invisible to us, our real (daytime) lives will remain untouched by their presence.
Like Heinzelmännchen, such robots do not exist. The robots that do exist, however, in no way resemble the shape of self-sufficient house elves. Rather, they are in constant need of care, and it is this care – not the robot – that we wish to be invisible when depicting robots as hassle-free house elves.
But, this vision is an illusion. A retired professor who spent his whole academic career in robotics once told me during an interview: “When we design robots”, he said, “we do not build single machines, but a whole infrastructure to make them work.” Our image of robots is misleading because robots do in fact require specific supports according to their needs. Once they leave the laboratory and enter everyday life, our homes will be their homes. Robots do not come during the night and then disappear, they stay. They are infrastructure.
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