TERRY PRONE: I could programme myself to allow a robot to care for me in old age

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When I gave it a bit more thought though, I fell half in love with the idea of having my own personal robot to mind me, writes Terry Prone.

My sister once bought me a Roomba vacuum cleaner. While I appreciate many readers of the Irish Examiner have sisters they love, sisters who are generous, I would still maintain that I may be unique in having a sister who would give them an electronic wagon wheel that would clean a whole house all by itself. Does this mean my sister thinks I am a slob whose house is just this side of condemnation by the public health regulator? Of course she does, because I am and it is. Even before I developed cats, it was.

I was properly grateful, even before it was fully powered up and ready for the challenge. Seeing it in action deepened gratitude to love. My mother’s old hoover had approached domestic dirt like a Sherman tank. It roared at the dirt and beat the hell out of it. It even said so. Down the side of the word Hoover, it said: “It beats as it sweeps as it cleans.”

The Roomba, on the other hand, was quietly decorous in its wooing of the dirt. It would take a run at a room, but if it encountered any object, it deferred to it. It never met a skirting board it didn’t respect, and it was positively obsequious to table legs.

It would nudge gently against them in a repeated suggestion that if both sides played their cards right, something wondrous would happen.

I kept thinking its little electronic brain would get fed up of all this soft and fuzzy stuff and give a chair leg a right going over, but in the days when I watched it, like you watch a newborn, it never changed.

Then I took my eye off it and it fell down the stairs. This did its electronic brain no good at all and from then on it just went round in circles. I have always felt guilty about leaving the door open, allowing it to venture into a danger zone.

I had quite forgotten the Roomba until I saw pictures of old people in Japanese nursing homes caressing the bald heads of the robots developed to take care of them. Oh, dear God, I thought, this is horrific.

Never mind Google offering alternatives when you don’t spell something correctly.

Never mind your fridge telling Tesco you’re out of butter even if you’ve gone off Tesco and now shop in Supervalu.

Never mind being pursued on the phone by a tyre company stalking me with tyre offers.

The thought that we are headed – some of us sooner than others, let’s be honest, here — for a world where ‘home help’ means an electronic yoke with a roundy head and flashing eyes, is worrisome, at first glance.

When I gave it a bit more thought though, I fell half in love with the idea of having my own personal robot to mind me.

For starters, I relate well to non-humans. In some ways, I relate better to non-humans than to humans. You want to see human emotion in full flow, watch me with non-humans. I apologise warmly to store mannequins when I bump into them. On the other hand, I gave out yards to Barack Obama just after his first election when he got in my way and I running for a plane. (He was lifesize but made of cardboard.) Every contrivance in my house is at a different level in my affections. I adore the wood burning stove, for example, but I hate the fridge and the dishwasher. And they know.

Every contrivance in my house is at a different level in my affections. I adore the wood burning stove, for example, but I hate the fridge and the dishwasher. And they know.

I’m not on my own in this. A bunch of far-right Norwegians last week worked up a good hate against half a dozen bus seats they mistook for Muslim women in burkas.

Those bus seats, they opined, were a threat to civilised living.

If it’s that easy to get negative about inanimate objects, I figure I can go the other way, work up warm affection for a plastic helper who requires nothing from me other than being plugged in when I’m not using it. Not that I need it right now, but I see the possibilities.

One of the things that can upset the relatives of those suffering dementia is being asked the same question 20 times in a row. Those relatives react in different ways.

Some of them tell the person who is ill to concentrate or put sticky notes up to remind them, which is about as helpful as tossing an anchor to someone who is drowning. Some of them sigh heavily and point out that they’ve been asked the question innumerable times already. Some of them are saintly about it, which is probably the worst.

Someone being saintly about deficits which are outside of your control needs scolding. But in this situation, a robot will answer the same question without changing emotional temperature, because it doesn’t have any, or getting impatient, because it doesn’t care.

It doesn’t remember you when you were the full shilling, which is great, and it doesn’t have anything else it would rather be doing, which is even better.

Victor Vahidi Motti, an Iranian futurist, maintains that “if there is a manual, book, handbook, paper, or the like on how to do something, then software could be developed and evolved to a sufficiently human level of precision and skill to perform that task”.

Now, as every second family in Ireland can testify, if there’s one area thickly covered in manuals, books, handbooks, papers and the like, it’s care at home of elderly people. Those manuals and standards could easily be used to programme my robot who would be much easier to remotely manage than a human carer.

This is because my robot would have no idiosyncracies, like the eccentricity afflicting one human carer I heard of, who managed all of her daily duties with compassionate efficiency but hated having to ring the company employing her to confirm that she had arrived in the client’s home.

To her, it was an infringement of her human rights and a statement that she couldn’t be trusted. Weird. But human. Wouldn’t affect my robot.

In fact, my robot’s very inhumanity may be an advance, since claims to humanity these days almost always accompany a confession of egregious fraud, misogyny, racism or worse — ‘I’m only human’.

If the quintessence of humanity — at least according to these confessions — is pride, ambition, crookedness and evil, it’s odd that we assume robots are ready to turn nasty, the quintessential example being HAL, the computer on the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hal goes bad, gets found out, and has his brain disconnected, so he reverts to computer childhood, singing ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do’ to himself before going silent.

Being washed, dried, and fed by a robot would suit me a lot better, if I were to become disabled, than having those things done for me by a human. My robot could even be programmed not to fall down the stairs like the late lamented Roomba.

When I gave it a bit more thought though, I fell half in love with the idea of having my own personal robot to mind me


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