By Jim Towey
Next month at Elon Musk’s “Tesla’s A.I. Day,” he will debut a humanoid robot. Musk designed the “Tesla Optimus” to be about the height and weight of an adult so that it can do all the work humans do, including heavy lifting.
Give Musk credit for being up front about his plans for his robots to replace human workers, unlike Amazon which routinely dissembles about its intentions. It claims the use of its hundreds of thousands of robots “frees up” humans for other things – like, say, standing in an unemployment line.
Musk’s prototype will walk and talk. In contrast to Amazon’s robotics, his creation will have a screen as its face in order to communicate with people. “You may wonder why we designed this robot with legs. Because human society is based on the interaction of a bipedal humanoid with two arms and ten fingers,” Musk wrote in his column in the Cyberspace Administration of China’s official publication. “So if we want a robot to adapt to its environment and be able to do what humans do, it has to be roughly the same size, shape, and capabilities as a human.”
Robots for the elderly
Here’s where it gets even creepier. Musk says that he wants to “replace people in repetitive, boring and dangerous tasks.” Sounds innocent enough, right? But then he cites “caring for the elderly” as one such drab duty.
Really? That isn’t the experience of most caregivers. The joy of loving elders adds to personal fulfillment and makes one more deeply human. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, such service to those in need fulfills the great commands to love thy neighbor and honor thy father and mother. But in Musk’s new world, the way to honor our parents, or our spouse with Alzheimer’s, is to buy one of Musk’s robo-minions?
In Muskland, robots could be at the bedside offering phony compassion, simulating concern, reciting programmed lines determined by algorithms, and do all of this with the intent of appearing to be human-like. Musk said achieving his goal “requires that robots evolve to be smart enough and for us to have the ability to mass produce robots.”
Blurring the line
First of all, the careless use of the word “evolve” here seems meant to further blur the line between human and humanoid. It pretends the evolution of man and robots over time is inevitable and natural and flows from the intelligent design of the human race. Not true. Second, Musk knows that big profits only come if a zillion of these humanoids are produced. So look out, American workers!
I read a Bari Weiss interview with Larry Summers, the former Harvard president and Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department. “We have a large number of people who are estranged from our economy,” Summers said. “In 1960, five percent of men ages 25-54 were not working. Today it’s more like 15 percent.” That means a quarter of the people will have been out of work for a year or more over a four or five-year period. “That’s destructive to the economy’s productive potential. It’s destructive to their families. It’s destructive to the areas in which they live. It’s destructive to the moral fabric of our national life.” Does anyone think robots are going to help with that grave problem?
Robots in nursing homes
Musk is not the only one who sees robots caring for the elderly. The New York Times recently ran a piece, “Can Robots Save Nursing Homes?” raising this possibility. Time magazine had a feature three years ago about Knollwood Military Retirement Community, a 300-bed facility in Washington, D.C., and its charming, smiling robot, “Stevie,” who got a sorrowful frown on its face and said, “I’m sorry to hear that,” to patients who say they are sick. So now we have happy and sad robots.
Stevie is what is known as a “socially assistive robot” and the result of a collaboration between the Robotics and Innovation Lab at Trinity College Dublin and Knollwood. The article justified the introduction of robots into long-term care facilities by citing the expected 150,000 paid worker shortfall projected by the end of this decade, a deficit that is expected to swell to 355,000 by 2040. The author nods to the importance of a technological fix that “reliably attends to the social, emotional, and physical needs of aging people in a way that respects their dignity and privacy.” The article also cautions that these robots must “support human care workers without taking their jobs.”
But that is precisely what robots do. They take human jobs. And if protections aren’t put into place soon, they will replace humans at the bedside as the companions of the lonely, sick and dying. That is a chilling thought.