Even If Grandma Embraces Her Robot, Should We Fear It?

Zeynep Tufekci‘s recent piece “Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma” has been getting some attention. It’s a polemic against the prospect of using advanced technologies to provide elder care, embedded within a larger diatribe about technological progress, automation, and capitalism.

I don’t want to take on her big argument here. If you want a response to it, and a very different and mindfully optimistic view of tech progress and capitalism, check out our book The Second Machine Age (an age which, incidentally, Tufekci thinks we’re “close to concluding.” Erik and I think it’s just heating up). I want to concentrate instead on what she says about the idea of using robots to help take care of Grandma:

In my view, warehousing elderly… in rooms with machines that keep them busy, when large numbers of humans 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.

… surely we should mourn if we put our elderly… in “care” of metal objects animated by software because we, the richest society globally the world has ever seen… cannot bring together the political will to remain human through taking care of each other, and making a decent living doing so.

Who could argue with such ringing language and humanist sentiment? I’ll start.

First of all, no serious person I know is advocating warehousing old people in rooms where they’re looked after only(?) by machines, any more than the Affordable Care Act set up death panels. Hyperbole is the ally of demagoguery, not of serious argument.

And to the extent that Tufekci is advancing a real argument, it’s one that stumbles both on its economics and its view of where the better angels of our nature spring from.

Her piece includes no numbers about the costs of elder care. And the numbers are daunting. Care.com reports, for example, that a semi-private nursing home room in Massachusetts costs more than $120k per year, and a 44 hour per week home health aide almost $60k.

Faced with these figures many families decide to take care of their oldest members themselves (a task that, as Tufekci notes, usually falls to women), but this approach has its own costs, and they’re also high. As reported by NPR in 2012, “a  MetLife report said that for the typical woman, the lost wages due to dropping out of the labor force because of adult caregiving responsibilities averages nearly $143,000.”

The direct costs do not go away if we decide to greatly increase public elder care; they just get paid by the government (and paid for via higher taxes or borrowing) instead of individuals. Maybe this is the right thing for us to do, but it wouldn’t change anything about how expensive it is to provide labor-intensive services in a high-wage country.

The one thing we can all agree on about automation is that it lowers the costs of good and services. Most people would also agree that cost reduction is what we need more than anything else right now throughout our healthcare system. Tufekci ignores these issues completely.

Instead, she paints a picture of how we will inevitably become desensitized to each other and therefore dehumanized as technology starts to help with caregiving tasks. I just don’t buy it, for the simple reason that technology has already taken over a great many things that used to take place between people, and humanity keeps chugging along admirably.

I don’t see the harm in creating technologies to help with elder care and more than I do with taking a pulse, connecting a telephone call, making a book recommendation, issuing an airline ticket, or doing any of the thousands of things that used to be done exclusively by people and are now done often by machines. I certainly don’t feel that because I now use technologies for these things my humanity is being chipped away at; I feel instead that having these things done better, faster, and cheaper by technology frees me up to have the kinds of human interactions that I actively choose to have. I’m happy to report that these have not gone to zero.

The idea that there’s some kind of clear Rubicon that we should never cross in the world of work — some tasks that should must always be done by people lest we lose something precious and essential about ourselves — is a perennially beguiling one, but it’s wrong.  Among its many flaws the deepest is that it doesn’t give us enough credit.

It suggests that we’re going to stop caring about our grandmas once we use technologies to learn if they’ve fallen, help them get out of bed, or yes, keep them company. Who here is not offended by that suggestion?