When Robots Come for Grandma

Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for GrandmaWhen Robots Come for Grandma is a long and thought-provoking article by Zeynep Tufekci that builds a case against “caregiver robots,” arguing that they are both inhumane and economically destructive.

She got me thinking, and I hope this has the same effect on you. I would have liked to add my own perspectives with links to related articles here at Modern Health Talk. I’d start with Will Robots Take Over in Health Care? Unfortunately there was no space to add comments.

I hope you’ll share your own thoughts in the space I give below.

My Comments

Accelerating Pace — Tech innovation is following Moore’s Law and is happening exponentially, replacing repetitive jobs, even professional white-collar jobs, faster than creating new opportunities. Are we to end up like the Axioms in the Pixar movie, Wall-E?

Obsoleted Skills — A major challenge, given that we no longer work for one employer or in one career field our entire lives but are now forced to change jobs and re-tool skills every few years, makes that retooling a challenge. It’s hard to justify earning yet another degree, with another student loan, just to keep up.

Emotional Labor — The author describes “emotional labor” as a last bastion of meaningful work and how even that work is being attacked by automation. I describe those doing this human-touch work as the “pink-collar” workforce. It’s harder to automate, but that trend too is clear.

Global Demographics — Unfortunately, the aging population is forcing this debate about how to care for our elderly. World population has more than doubled in my lifetime (from about 2.5 billion in 1948 to well over 7 billion today), and modern medicine has helped people to live longer, with some futurists envisioning the day when humans could live for hundreds of years as technology and new knowledge helps solve illness and views the aging process as just another disease to be eradicated.

Caregiver Ratio — Average lifespan in 1940 was 63.5 years with some 9M Americans receiving Social Security. The ratio of workers to beneficiaries was then 159:1. Contrast that to 2010 when average lifespan was 78.3 years, and nearly 39M people received Social Security benefits (14 times more). And the ratio of workers to retirees in 2010 was 2.9:1. That was BEFORE the first boomer turned 65.

Alternative Futures — Humans are incredibly versatile and adaptive, but it’s unclear if we can keep up with the accelerating pace of innovation. Still, futurists consider alternative scenarios and versions of the future so we can hopefully steer toward the most desirable version. We need public policies that recognize the choices and value society as a whole over wealthy special interests.

Wealth Gap — The current political climate favors a continually widening of the gaps in wealth, income and opportunity, because of imbalanced incentives. The private sector, which measures success in business terms such as profit, ROI and payback period, tends to make relatively short-term decisions that serve the investment interests of shareholders. This ideally is offset by public sector organizations that measure success over much longer time periods and can invest differently. But the rising cost of political campaigns force politicians into catering to wealthy donors, so they too are focused on the short-term — from one election cycle to another. (Watch Wealth Inequality, Healthcare, and the Economy.)

Politics — Should societal issues caused by AI & automation be left to politicians to resolve, and a political process corrupted by special interests? Will the pace of their policy-making be able to keep up with the pace of tech innovation? (It’s already slowing with our divided Congress, as technology speeds up.) So while our Constitution starts with “We the people,” I must today ask, “Who are ‘WE’?” We can begin answering that question with our vote – for either a united nation of diverse nationalities and beliefs, or a divided nation of warring tribes ruled by rich white men in suits.

Solution — The only way I see out of the scenario posed by the author is to craft public policies that can cope with the issues raised in this article. I believe that includes political reforms that attack the corrupting influence of big money in politics. We desperately need campaign finance reform and term limits, but that’s just the start. The challenges raised by the author are immense and need public policies that are much more social.

Some countries are even experimenting with Universal Basic Income, a concept that’s endorsed by billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. I can imagine significant benefits but wonder about possible risks of giving people enough free money to live on regardless of work they do. If they choose not to work, do they deserve it? That’s why careful monitoring of trial programs is important to find out what makes it work or not.