The in(human) gaze and robotic carers

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.


From Channel 4’s sci-fi robot series Humans

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.” 




  1. Thank you for this insightful piece!
    A couple of thoughts that popped up in my head while reading:

    Why the specific reference to “elderly people or children”?
    Both givers and receivers of care exist in all age groups, all ways of life. Some may be long term, some may be short term (e.g. mental health emergencies, radiation exposure, etc.) where robots may well be considered safer, more efficient, or for other reasons (see below) preferable to human interaction, by either side of the care given.

    Instinctively, I’d argue that emotional support is required in all of these cases.
    But instinct can be wrong. Which leads me to the next thought:

    You mention embarrassment as an emotional parameter that would tip the scale inhuman interaction. I can think of another powerful parameter in the human gaze: judgement!
    Because most humans judge, not in a nasty way, not necessarily consciously, but we do. And to some, this is more uncomfortable than an embarrassment would be.
    As someone who has been both care receiver and care giver at times in my life, and in both situations I have at time been aware of the judging going on, and sometimes it was very uncomfortable. Or, just consider the sheer overload of pity and concern that can just get too much!

    I would argue that there are so many cultural variances (e.g. my father arranging his own move into a home and becoming monk-like with his books, to not be a burden on anyone, and with a smile, compared to my friend’s father who can not suffer to not be the centre of attention and human care) but also so many temporal variances (some days I can enjoy the human gaze, some days I long for the inhuman gaze) that the only truly humane approach would be to aim for both care-receiver and those responsible for their care to be in agreement over human or inhuman care giver… at any moment.

    There may be overriding concerns (e.g. a carer knowing that however uncomfortable the human gaze might be, it will help the patient not fall into deeper isolation and depression) but it should be an agreement between both parties, and open to review at all times.

    Were that a tenet of inhuman care, I should think that a lot of fear and doubt would be subsumed, both sides would be willing to experiment, intrigued even. It could become a whole extra layer of exploration, distraction, and human growth.

    Sadly in ‘western’ societies, decisions are likely to be made on cost grounds only, and that will surely weigh in to the anxieties of care-receivers who otherwise might be more open to an inhuman gaze of a carer?

    And finally, I am not so sure that “human companionship and support” can not be one day performed by inhuman systems. Perhaps, but I may just be too romantic here, there will always be the exceptional humans which we have today. But anyone who has been cared for by tired, overworked, cynical, unwilling or unwell carers can also attest that the gamut of “human companionship and emotional support” is *huge* – and I am quite sure that in not too many decades, machines may be surpassing the lower third of those not-actually-very-supporting humans. Consider how many people today are already happy interacting with robots, knowingly or unknowingly. The romantic me finds this sad, but the pragmatic me wonders whether the cared for would not be better off, overall?

    As always, it is about finding a balance – and then constantly checking that the balance is where it should be 🙂

    Thanks again!


    1. Thanks for your interesting comment, Hanry.

      “Why the specific reference to “elderly people or children”?”
      This is a good question and the answer is simply robot carers aimed at elderly people and children are, I think, the most common ones. My intention is not to narrow robot care down exclusively to the elderly and children but to just provide some common examples. I agree with you they exist in all age groups and all ways of life.

      Thanks for sharing the story of the two different experiences about your father vs your friend’s father – culture certainly plays a significant role as you pointed out. I would also agree with your comment on “judgement”. It’s a value-laden human activity similar to embarrassment and humiliation.

      With regard to your point in the last paragraph; I might see your point how one might prefer a robot gaze as opposed to being cared by a “tired, overworked and cynical” human (although the optimist in me says we can do better than that). However, I disagree that human companionship and support can be replaced by a robot for the reasons I mentioned in the blog: values, judgements, sympathies are simply not something that can be quantified and specified into codes as inputs into a robot system.

      Thanks again for engaging.


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