Google search “robot carers” and you’ll find extremely hyped up articles and think pieces on either how robot carers are just another way of dying even more miserably or how robot carers are saving the elderly from the lives of loneliness and nothing much in between. Not much nuance. Neither is right, of course. Robot carers shouldn’t be dismissed at first hand as the end of human connections and neither should they be overhyped as the flawless substitutes for human care.
I think they can be useful and practical and even preferable to a human carer in some cases while they cannot (and most likely never will) substitute human care and connection in other aspects. The human gaze is my reason for thinking that.
But first let me say a little about the Inhuman Gaze conference, which provoked me to think about robot care givers. The conference took place last week (6th – 9th June) in Paris. It was a diverse and multidisciplinary conference that brought together philosophers, neuroscientists, psychiatrists (scholars and practitioners alike) with the common theme of the inhuman gaze. Over the four days, speakers presented their philosophical arguments, empirical studies and clinical case studies, each from their own perspective, what the human/inhuman gaze is and its implication for the sense of self. I, myself, presented my argument for why other’s gaze (human or otherwise) is a crucial constituent to “self”. I looked at solitary confinement as an example. In solitary confinement (complete isolation or significantly reduced intersubjective contact), prisoners suffer from negative physical and psychological effects including confusion, hallucination and gradual loss of sense of self. The longer (and more intense) the solitary confinement goes, the more the pronounced the negative effects, leading to gradual loss of sense of self.
The reason for gradual loss of self in the absence of contact with others, Bakhtin would insist, is that the self is dependent on others for its existence. The self is never a self-contained and self-sustaining entity. It simply cannot exist outside the web of relations with others. Self-narrative requires not only having something to narrate but also having someone to narrate it to. To be able to conceptualize my self as a meaningful whole, which is fundamental to self-individuation and self-understanding, I need an additional, external perspective – an other. The coherent self is put under threat in solitary confinement as it is deprived of the “other”, which is imperative for its existence. The gaze of another, even when uncaring, is an affirmation of my existence.
So, what is an inhuman gaze? A gaze from non-human objects: like the gaze of a wall in a solitary confinement? The gaze of a CCTV camera (although there often is a human at the other end of a CCTV camera)? or a gaze from a human but one that is objectifying and dehumanizing? For example, the gaze from a physician who’s performing an illegal organ harvesting where the physician treats the body that she’s operating on like an inanimate object? Let’s assume an inhuman gaze is the gaze of non-human objects for now. Because the distinctiveness of the human gaze (sympathizing, caring, objectifying or humanizing) is important to the point that I am trying to make. The human gaze, unlike the inhuman gaze, is crucial to self-affirmation.
Robot caregivers and the human gaze…
Neither the extreme alarmist nor the uncritical enthusiast help elucidate the pitfalls and potential benefits of robot caregiving. Whether robotic caregiving is a revelation or a doom depends on the type of care one needs. Roughly speaking, we can categorize care that robots can provide into two general categories. First one is physical or mechanical care – for example., fetching medicine or changing elderly patients into incontinence wear. The second one, on the other hand is companionship (to elderly people or children) where the aim might be to provide emotional support.
Now, robotic care might be well suited for the physical or mechanical type of care. In fact, some people might prefer a robot dealing with such physical task as incontinence care or any similar task that they are no longer able to perform themselves. Such care, when provided by a human, might be embarrassing and humiliating for some people. Not only is the human gaze capable of deep understanding and sympathy but also the potential to humiliate and intimidate. The robotic gaze, on the other hand, having no intrinsic values, is not judgemental. So, in the case of physical and mechanical care, the absence of the human gaze does not necessarily result in a significant negative effect. In fact, it might be desirable when we are in a vulnerable position where we feel we might be humiliated.
On the contrary, if companionship and emotional support are the types of care that we are looking for, the value and judgement free robotic gaze will simply not do. We are profoundly social, dynamic and embodied beings who continually strive to attribute meaning and value to the world. If we are to ascribe an ‘essence of the human condition’, it is that that our being in the world is thoroughly interdependent with the existence of others and context where we continually move and negotiate between different positions. True companionship and emotional connection requires intrinsic recognition of emotions, suffering, happiness, and the like. A proper emotional and ethical relation to the other (and the acceptance of genuine responsibility) requires the presence of a loving and value-positing consciousness, and not a value-free, objectifying gaze.
True human companionship and emotional support cannot be programmed into a robot no matter how advanced our technologies can become, for companionship and emotional connection require sense-making and a value-positing consciousness. Sense-making is an active, dynamic and partly open undertaking – and therefore a never-ending process – not a matter of producing and perceiving mappings of reality which can then be codified into a software. The human gaze affords mutual understanding of what being a human is like. Recognition of emotions, suffering, etc., requires recognition of otherness based on mutual understanding. The human gaze recognizes an ‘other’ human gaze. As Hans Jonas has put it succinctly in ‘The Phenomenon of Life’, “only life can know life … only humans can know happiness and unhappiness.”