Recently, the online magazine, Good, suggested robots may be the future of elder care. But how will these caredroids change the way we understand what it means to “care”? And how will they change the way we age?

Imagine you are old and live in a wealthy, industrialized nation such as the United States, or Japan, or Germany. After a certain age, you will likely need help to look after yourself and your home. Your children, if you have any, work many hours a week, probably far away from where you live. This leaves you mostly on your own. Because there are growing numbers of individuals like you, governments face increasing budgets for social care. Some, like Ai-Jen Poo, have warned of an “elder boom,” that will necessitate the creation of many more care sector jobs in the coming years. But when these are difficult to fill, as is feared in countries with a population decline like Germany, what is the answer?

Enter Alice. This 60-centimeter robotic doll, developed by a group of Dutch scientists at VU University Amsterdam, was the subject of the recent award-winning documentary, Ik Ben Alice (I Am Alice). It follows three elderly women—Mrs. Remkes, Mrs. Wittmarschen, and Mrs. Schellekens-Blanke—who live on their own and who take part in an experiment to test the possibilities of the caredroid.

Because these women have different needs, the documentary demonstrates how adaptable Alice can be. For Wittmarschen, whose only son lives abroad, Alice fills an emotional gap by chatting about old photos. She also helps with Wittmarschen’s physiotherapy by counting the reps as she exercises her arms and legs.

Schellekens-Blanke was a professional singer, so Alice finds old songs and plays them from her internal computer, taking her client back to her youth and making her sing along. During their conversations, Alice´s voice is often adjusted to accommodate her client’s difficulty hearing.

And Alice helps Remkes by reminding her to go out to the community center or to write a postcard to a friend. The caredroid offers the postal code from her internal computer when her client has a problem finding it herself.

Initially the women are all skeptical about having a piece of technology as their new companion. But they gradually warm towards Alice, and by the end, there’s a sense that the caredroid is almost a friend. The women even seem sad that Alice is taken back to the lab for further development, which suggests that even with an artificial companion one can enter in a real relationship.

After Ik Ben Alice was shown on Dutch television and released on DVD, it incited discussions about the morals of care, about the technology of robot development, and about the financial cost of taking care of the increasing elderly population. Behind these discussions there is always an unspoken discomfort about treating a machine as companion. Whether their machine-ness is obvious, as with Alice, or whether it’s masked, as with the cuddly baby seal used to treat the emotional scars of elderly Japanese tsunami victims, we often feel that robots are not like us.

Philosophical science and technology studies often focus on why we feel at ease with our own projections and treat them like animated beings with whom we interact. Maurice Merleau-Ponty first addressed human-technology relations in his 1945 work on perception, which described the use of a walking stick or of driving a car as the experience of having a body extension. Later philosophers of technology began to look at how society structures our relations to technological artefacts. “Things,” such as robots, computers, and cars are now understood not just as instruments, but also as embodying intentions which direct our behavior, and in that sense provide norms for it. To give some examples: the signs in an airport tell me where to go. The word processing computer makes me use the languages built into it. Similarly, a caredroid like Alice asks her clients to adapt to the things she is programmed to do.

The unease we sometime have with robots also reflects an ambiguity we have about ourselves. Nearly 25 years ago, Donna Haraway addressed this unease in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. She confronted readers with the idea that our bodies had already been altered by so many technologies that we should stop seeing them as completely natural. Think not only of pacemakers, prosthetic legs, glasses and other apparent additions to the body, but also of contraception, food supplements, and other alterations we might call “unnatural.” Haraway urges us to reject both technophobic and techno-utopian attitudes. Instead, she suggests we confront the changes technology has brought by accepting that we have become part of its world. A cuddly robot, she argues, or one who talks, should not be seen as a threat to our humanity, but as just another addition to the technological networks in which we live.

A last point should be addressed. The development of caring technology is not an autonomous process. It depends on political systems and whether they allow for democratic decision making. Do we leave it to scientists to develop what they think useful for the elderly? Or to the care industry that increasingly funds their research? In his 2002 book Transforming Technology, Andrew Feenberg has investigated the intersections of political systems and technological developments. Following his critical work, we should ask whether decisions on the future of care will also be made by the parties involved: the elderly, their relatives, and the care workers. It might be that high-tech care provided by a robot like Alice is a solution to demographic developments in rich countries. Still, those involved might opt for other solutions, like changing the ways we combine work and care or attracting more workers from abroad.

Further Reading:

Andrew Feenberg. Transforming Technology. A Critical Theory Revisited. Oxford University Press 2002.

Donna Haraway. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge 1990.

Don Ihde. Philosophy of Technology. Paragon Issues in Philosophy. Paragon House, 1998.

Robert Rosenberger and Peter Paul Verbeek. Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human–Technology Relations. Lexington Books, 2015.

Image Credit: David Hodgson via flickr