Cybernics, Robots and Caretakers

Rachel Emma Silverman quoted a McKinsey & Co. report in her article, “Robots Eye Jobs in Food Service, Manufacturing” saying that, “Manufacturing, food service and retailing are the most susceptible to automation, based on currently available technology, while sectors like health care and education were less likely, according to the report.”

Manufacturing robots

In previous posts about the ongoing and rapidly increasing conversion of jobs from human beings to robots, I focused on the spread of automation across industries. I wondered if companies just might be eroding their own customer bases. Now I’m watching robots move into industries that we would not have predicted, like elder care.

Rachel Emma Silverman quoted a McKinsey & Co. report in her Wall Street Journal article, “Robots Eye Jobs in Food Service, Manufacturing” saying that,

“Manufacturing, food service and retailing are the most susceptible to automation, based on currently available technology, while sectors like health care and education were less likely, according to the report.”

The first part of this statement makes sense because any job that involves “predictive, repetitive tasks” is susceptible to automation, especially when those tasks can be performed by unskilled workers.

Steve Rosenbush analyzed the same McKinsey report and stated in “The Morning Download,” that,

“Packaging objects, welding on an assembly line and food preparation were the most likely to be automated using currently available technologies, according to the analysis. The report estimates that 59% of all manufacturing activities could be automated, a figure that rises to 90% for welders, cutters and solderers. And 73% of the tasks performed by food workers could be automated based on existing technologies, the report warns.”

Cybernics and Elder Care

Wait, what? Are health care and the associated elder care really immune to robotic automation or is that just an optimistic assumption? Consider the new term, Cynbernics, which means human-assistive technologies in biorobotics through the fusion of human, machine, and information systems. Got that?

The place to look for innovation in cybernics is Japan, where the number of old people vastly exceeds the population of young people to care for them. (You can read the demographic analysis by Mark Hay in “Why Robots are the Future of Elder Care” in Good.)

Elder-care robot lifting a person

Look first for innovation in cybernics to Japan, where the number of old people vastly exceeds the population of young people to care for them. (You can read the demographic analysis by Mark Hay in “Why Robots are the Future of Elder Care” in Good.)

Japanese companies, one of them named CyberDyne, produce robotic devices that engage the minds of dementia patients, lift and carry the non-ambulatory, bathe the weak and dispose of waste. They also manufacture Hybrid Assisted Limbs (HALs) that can return mobility and freedom of movement to the frail. Think of the exoskeletons we see in science fiction movies about super soldiers, like Matt Damon in “Elysium” and Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow.” These units strengthen the weakened limbs of the elderly instead fighting wars.

Robots Tackle the Icky Stuff

The icky stuff presents another target for automation. Emptying bedpans and changing diapers are the kind of predictive, repetitive and repellent tasks that human beings don’t like to do and that can make it difficult to keep home health workers on the job. Robots can perform them, however, and without the ick factor.

So if you thought that your children and extended family would be taking care of you in your golden years, think again. The only gold you may see is C3PO coming to give you a bath or walk you to the table for dinner. In this area, life appears to be imitating art. CyberDyne is, after all, the company that brought us Skynet in the Terminator franchise and HAL is the computer that killed the astronauts in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Loving Your Synth

More recently, William Hurt played a doctor in a short-lived series called Humans. He has a “synth” caregiver that is manufactured to resemble a young man named Odi. The synth, which runs on obsolete, unreliable software, is being taken out of service and replaced with a newer model. But Doctor Millican likes Odi and protects it, hiding the synth from the company’s customer service representatives who come to take it away. I’m not sure who is imitating what here.

Dr. Millican and Odi

Will the elderly accept cybernic care? Last year, William Hurt played a doctor in a short-lived series called Humans. He owns a “synth” caregiver that is manufactured to resemble a young man named Odi. The company wants to replace his synth, which runs on obsolete, unreliable software, with a newer model.

But Doctor Millican likes Odi, glitches and all. He protects it, hiding the synth from the company’s customer service representatives when they come to take it away. I’m not sure who is imitating what here.

No Assumptions About Cybernics

Here’s my point: Don’t make any assumptions about robotics, cybernics or automation because these are developing fields that seems to expand every day. We don’t really know what robots can and cannot do, what jobs only humans can perform, where humans draw the line, and to what extent companies are willing to replace cheap human labor with machines. Questions arise, however:

  • Are cybernic caregivers better than no caregivers at all? What do you think?
  • Will we accept robots as companions and caretakers? Can they replace the human touch, the human voice, the human spirit? Are the elderly—and potentially everyone—willing to do without those things?
  • Are we like the frog in the pot that becomes inured to the gradually rising water temperature? Will we wake up one morning and realize that the machines have risen?
  • Why do we consider robots superior to humans in so many ways? High tech workers know full well the limitations of computer hardware and software and understand that robots must be programmed carefully. We can’t (yet) download algorithms for judgment, emotion, intuition, compassion, and creativity. Bugs create problems and crashes happen.
  • How will we handle a world in which millions of people have lost their jobs to robots and cybernic devices and been thrown into poverty?

The Science Fiction Answers

As noted in the examples given here and in previous posts, science fiction has dealt with and continues to address many of these questions. Speculative fiction has always asked the question “What if” and then attempted to find an answer. The genre has long speculated about robots, cyborgs, androids and bionics, with cybernics just the latest term.

2001-A Space Odyssey

“HAL is malfunctioning”

We do not always like those answers, though. Malfunctioning HAL attempts to kills the entire crew of Discovery, and only Astronaut Dave Bowman survives.

The Cylons rebel against what they perceive as slavery and destroy their human makers. The original CyberDyne produces Skynet and we know well how that turns out.

Stay tuned. Things change every day. In the meantime, is C3PO ready to take me in to dinner?

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