Economic Value of Robots, Prosthetics & Assistive Tech

National Geographic's gallery of Robot PhotographyThis month’s National Geographic features a story about robots that can think, act, and relate to humans and asks if we are ready. A related article on bionics follows innovations in neural prostheses, or mechanical systems that tie into the nervous system and function like living organisms or parts of living organisms, giving sight to the blind, sound to the deaf, and movement to the amputee or quadriplegic. Both articles are logical extensions of our discussion of healthcare robots, and I found them extremely interesting.

Androids represent a new generation of robots designed as autonomous agents capable of thinking, learning and taking on tasks previously done by humans in a human environment, rather than as programmed industrial machines that do only one thing. They may soon be able to move about the home, cook for us, fold laundry, babysit children, tend to elderly, and become companions.

But that raises lots of questions. How much human function do we want to outsource to robots? Will they behave ethically and have human-like feelings? What will they look like; how will we interact with them; will we accept them; and can we afford them?

The article on bionics raised even more questions, including what’s the economic value of such assistive technologies and how who will pay for them? The cost is high enough that few people will be wealthy enough to pay individually; but if the social benefit is enough, will society pay? And will the answer depend on age and future contribution to the workforce?

It’s one thing for VA benefits to cover the cost of bionic limbs for young soldier quadriplegics returning from Afghanistan, because it helps lower a lifetime of care costs and provides a means of employment. But what about someone in their 70s or later? Will they get the same consideration, and will Medicare or Medicaid foot the bill? What will the political climate allow? Is it politically easier to fund the VA than Medicare? How would YOU vote? Please weigh in with your reply below.

To help, you may want to browse The Social and Economic Value of Human Services, an 18-page paper by the Chicago Community Trust that also explores the value of other social investments, including after school programs, early childhood education, homelessness interventions, job training, services for seniors and persons with disabilities, and violence prevention.

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