Robots will take away from human interaction

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The technology in our world is constantly evolving to become less and less dependent on humans and more and more automatic. You’ve definitely seen it just from the increase in self-checkout registers at your local supermarket. Have you ever considered a world in which there are no more cashiers and your trip to buy some milk is devoid of any human interaction? Or where most of interaction with anything came from with that of a humanoid robot? No more chit-chatting with a friendly cashier from whom you can learn how often the items you buy go on sale or receive thirty-second life advice from!

As our world becomes more and more efficient, we seem to be trying to replace people with robots in jobs that are ranked as relatively simple, meaning at a level that robots could do with no potentially huge risk for them messing up. Since robots do not take lunch or bathroom breaks and do not get distracted by a surly or attractive coworker, they have hiked up factory productions and increased revenue. Maybe they need periodic maintenance to tighten some loose screws, but they do not require health benefits, retirement plans, vacation, or a sick leave. Thus, they are a solid investment.

As we develop increasingly more sophisticated robots, they are being programmed to engage in more and more complex interactions with human beings. A voice recognition system enables robots to choose a musical piece by our favorite composer or a performer, make a phone call for us while we are driving, or find the nearest restaurant or gas station. Life is becoming easier and driving is becoming safer with the help of artificial intelligence. It seems that robots can improve our quality of life in every respect.

However, one needs to wonder if developing humanoid robots to aid the elderly or to serve as disabled care companions should be met with the same enthusiasm and brouhaha as we display when receiving a roomba as a gift. Without a doubt, robots can help the elderly and disabled to receive medication, have items delivered to their bedside, or to receive reminders about doctors’ visits. It seems that in this role, the robots are efficient and practical. However, if the ones in care of the robots have mostly machines as their companions, they are deprived of true human interaction. No matter how sophisticated robots are, or how much they are designed to look like humans, they cannot display emotion and provide a human touch. Being subjected to long-term companionship of robots appears dehumanizing to those who must depend on the robots’ care. It is a prescription for loneliness and depression. As a society, we cannot afford going that route — we haven’t designed robots who can assist with lifting depression yet!

As short-term assistants, robots may be a solution and a way to make in-home care affordable. It may be the best option for someone wheelchair-bound and struggling to take care of oneself, but without any relatives or friends who might be willing to help. Perhaps a person may want to retain independence or simply can’t afford to move in to a care home? Then hiring or purchasing a humanoid robot to assist and serve as a companion in your daily life to make tasks easier and increase your quality of life. In the future, this may even end up being a cheaper alternative than hiring an actual person as an assistant. But, it’s a little bit freaky when you think about it — imagine having to spend your entire day talking to someone who can’t even feel anything! Relying entirely on a robot in this way takes away the aspect of human interaction and companionship, important factors for establishing emotional connections for most people. And, if your life is void of emotional connection, what do you have?

As humans, we are, by nature, largely social creatures. In order to be happy, we need to maintain some sort of balance with human interaction during our daily lives. Depriving someone of it deliberately for the sake of cheaper “labor” is simply inhumane, and takes away that person’s dignity. Some argue that robots could be developed to be social with an increased range in flexible facial expressions. However, human companionship itself is utterly irreplaceable, and I would argue that the realization that you are talking to an empty machine that will never truly be able to love you nor laugh at your jokes on a meaningful level is more lonely and isolating than spending all of that time by yourself. Not to mention the fact that robots will do what they are programmed for, and so far there is no algorithm that can be used to program for creative and nuanced use of language that can feed both our souls and our brains. Robots can feed our bodies by bringing us food, drink, or medication. But, a long-term dependence on a robot’s companionship equals deprivation of what makes us human — the creative use of language to express novel thoughts, to make us laugh and cry. In a sense, being locked up with a robot for days on end may be compared to being locked up in a solitary confinement. Isn’t that the hardest prison sentence? If we do not invest in creating affordable social care for the elderly and the disabled and we make robots the only option of companionship they can afford, we will be sentencing them to a life of solitude in the presence of advanced technology.