Would You Let a Robot Give You a Sponge Bath?

Imagine it's 50 years from now, and you've checked into the hospital for a minor surgery that will require you to spend a couple of nights there. There's a nurses' station down the hall, but you know that the nurses are also caring for lots of other patients and may not be able to come quickly when you have a need, particularly if it isn't an emergency, like getting a hand walking to the bathroom, or having someone pick up the TV remote you dropped, or maybe getting a foot rub just because that would be nice. Upon checking in, the clerk says to you, "I see that your insurance provides for a robotic aide while you're here. Is that something you'd like?" What are you going to say?

According to a survey the Pew Research Center did on people's feelings about future technologies, most people would say "No thanks"—or at least they think so now. The survey is fascinating in part because many of the results seem (to me anyway) to be ridiculous. For instance, 39 percent of respondents think that 50 years from now "scientists will have solved teleportation," and if they're thinking that means not the teleportation of atoms but you being able to step into a teleportation booth and beam over to your office, they're going to be disappointed. There's a reason that on Star Trek they never explained how the Heisenberg Compensator works.

Or take this: 78 percent of Americans say they wouldn't eat meat that was grown in a lab if such a thing were available. Do they have any idea what kind of complex feats of science, engineering, and resource management go into the production of that Hot Pocket you gave your kid for lunch? Lab-grown meat is nothing by comparison, and when it eventually comes, before long very few people will view it as unnatural and inherently weird and distasteful. Once industrial production of lab-grown meat ramps up, we'll have trouble believing we ever cooperated with a system as cruel and barbaric as the one we have now.

But back to the robot medical assistant:

I'm a little surprised at all this opposition to robots for the elderly and infirm. Part of the reluctance people have may come from the associations we have with the word "robot," and not just that they might rise up and exterminate us. When you hear the word, what do you think of? Something made of metal and plastic, probably. Not something with gentle hands that could, say, turn you over carefully and apply a soothing salve to your bedsores. But when they actually start designing caregiving robots, you can bet they'll make sure to make them soft.

That industrial design will be one important part of gaining acceptance for helper robots. But more important will be the fact the need is so great, and they'll be really, really handy. We already have a glaring need for caregivers for the sick and elderly, and as the Baby Boomers age, it will only increase. There are never going to be enough people to meet the need, unless half the American population is made up of nurses, orderlies, and home health aides taking care of the other half. And that of course would be prohibitively expensive. Robots will be pricey at first, but the price will drop over time, and Medicare will gladly pay a few grand for a bot that can do work that would end up costing tens of thousands of dollars a month if it were done by humans.

But don't worry—by the time that happens, you'll have already gotten used to the idea. You'll chat with your bot while cutting into a juicy, mouth-watering lab-grown steak. And you'll love it. 

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