The Robotic Kindness of Strangers

One small nugget I took away from the (absolutely terrific) Stanford Law School robotics panel last week was a much better appreciation of how robotics will interact with advanced societies aging – elder-care, health care for the old and infirm, and so on.  Japan leads the way.

Paul Saffo (Stanford professor, futurist, and technology journalist, and very smart guy) remarked that the last ten years had seen an important technological shift, crucial to robotics, in the development of cheap sensor devices.  Sensor devices that could harness the computational power of the chip and make it possible to interface with the real world and, combined with improvements in elements of motion and locomotion, gives the world genuine robots.  It is movement, sensing, and computational power in combination that makes it possible for robots to do things, and do things for us.

That leads to the age of robotics, and – depending in part on what happens to R&D budgets in health care – the care of the elderly is one natural area of application, as well as a source of revenue to fund the industry.  More, faster please, as Glenn Reynolds might say.  Saffo also remarked that in a certain way, old people coming to depend on robots to help and do things for them as the fulfilment of “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” – robotic strangers, in this case.

I added, and think it more important in setting out future technology trends here than one might initially figure, that a driver of robotic care for the elderly will be that the elderly themselves prefer robotic strangers caring for them, rather than human strangers.  Particularly in all the intimate, intrusive, personal things like bathing and toiletting – I at least would vastly prefer to interact with a machine rather than a home care person.  Robots in that sense help me avoid having to depend upon the kindness of strangers.

This is outside of my usual area of robotic remit – robots and the laws and ethics of war.  But I am rapidly moving to backfill into these other areas as it becomes clear that these questions of technology, but also of law, are interrelated and often versions of the same thing.  The robotic decision whether to fire a weapon or not, if technology ever comes to that point, is importantly interconnected with the question an eldercare robot might have to ask regarding whether to call 911.

(There are several topics raised by the Stanford discussion on robotics and I’ll try to get to several of them over the next few posts.  But I wanted to thank Ryan Calo and all the folks who put the discussion together – it was a great set of discussions for me and I hope for everyone who attended.  I realized, sitting and listening, that there are not that many places in the US where you could hold that kind of discussion, with an audience including engineers and technologists and scientists sitting in the office who actually work in the field, not just in academic departments, but in commercial firms and ventures, trying to make it real.)