Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

CHISHOLM: Celebrate Our Robotic Future

In Japan, the robotics market continues to expand with rapidity to the surprise, delight and chagrin of onlookers throughout the world. Although our imaginations may have oriented us toward a distant vision of a chrome-gilded future replete with anthropomorphic androids seeking to imitate and perhaps replace us, the reality of our horizon is not nearly as dystopian, and in fact much cuter than some expect.

Today, all-purpose humanoid robots are so prohibitively expensive that it is difficult to conceive of a world in which they are ubiquitous. Robotics tend to be cost-effective only in narrow situations such as car manufacturing, but recently that realm of efficiency has become an exponentially expanding one.

Particularly notable is the market of Japanese caregiving robots, where robotic products unceasingly prove their utility and thus accelerate from tentative introduction to active implementation in alarmingly short time frames. Consider Paro the seal, a six-pound robotic stuffed animal complete with tactile, visual and audio sensors that allow it to react convincingly to stimuli as well as learn its given name and understand disciplinary commands from its owner.

Paro is principally designed to chaperone elderly dementia patients in care homes, but it has proven to be so charmingly lifelike that some patients fail to realize it is a robotic doll. It has been empirically proven to reduce patients’ stress levels and promote sociable behavior, though some argue that to approach unnecessary realism in robots is a cause for dismay. It is deceptive to the patients and unnerving for those who seek to keep a clear distinction between life and non-life, whatever that means for them.

Less humanoid technology may perhaps be less triggering to our instinctual reaction to fear outsiders, but they are nonetheless remarkable and full of use. “Caregiving robotics” also encompasses mobility assistance for patients in need of rehabilitation or with weak legs and can even take the form of so-called muscle suits donned by the caregivers to assist in lifting, carrying or bathing patients. Easily transported from home to home and presenting no threatening or austere attributes, these innovations demonstrate subtlety and grace. We will not so much compete with technology as embody it.

Fascinating as these innovations may be, they are not enough by themselves to justify implementation: the real impetus has always been cold, hard necessity. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare estimated in 2010 that the next 15 years would see a near doubling of the need for caregiving personnel, a growth that will indubitably outpace traditional manpower.

Even against the tide of necessity, barriers to the flood of robotic implementation stand stalwart in the minds of the public. Opinion polls still produce ambiguous results as to whether people, especially older people, are truly receptive to robotic caretakers. “Care is something given with the human hand” — even I may be seduced to agree with such a statement.

Regardless, robotic technology will progress fearlessly because it is economically efficient, a concept that carries near-religious clout in the modern sphere of innovation. Robots only have to be cheaper — not quicker or more skilled — at our jobs than we are in order to achieve common use.

For those readers who remain skeptical of any real benefit from robots beyond fleeting novelty, I must admit that I partially agree: I find the messenger bot which meanders the halls of Georgetown University Hospital delivering medications to be gimmicky, sluggish and decidedly not cute. Not all robots are created equally, however, as the astounding sophistication of other hospital implements, like those in roboticallyassisted surgery, is enough to obviate any such doubt. Robotically-assisted surgery already exists in multiple D.C. hospitals.

In all of this excitement of creation, one question plagues me. Even though I sense resistance to this technological revolution, I cannot be sure where in our hearts this bastion of anti-robot sentiment truly resides. If it is that we do not think we are in dire need of robotic assistance, other countries with different population parameters will be quick to prove otherwise. If it is simple fear that robots will deceive us, manipulate us or ruin our livelihood, I remain optimistic and assured that with enough contrary evidence, others will drop their prejudice. If it is simply that we are not charmed, I argue that it is a matter of taste and exposure, for ever since my first I-Choose-You Pikachu as a seven-year-old, I have found non-life to be just as deserving of affection and respect, even if it does not work like I do.

Whatever our inhibitions, we cannot continue to set robots so distantly apart from humans. Robots exist solely at our own behest and will become whatever we make of them. The least we could do is show them some gratitude, or maybe even a pat on the head — assuming they’re programmed to like it.

CelesteChisholm_SketchCeleste Chisholm is a senior in the College. SHAPE OF THE FUTURE appears every month.

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