Monday, January 23, 2017

What’s in store for us oldsters? Looks like robots. (Or, exactly what are people going to do for work?)

Later this week, I’m having lunch with an older friend – older enough of a friend to be my mother.  N is in her late eighties, and has slowed down quite a bit in the last couple of years. That would not be so surprising – people do tend to slow down in their late eighties - if her parents, who both lived well into their nineties, had ever slowed down. But, until the very final stages of life neither did. N’s father worked as an engineer into his nineties, and her mother worked as a noodge well into hers. But N’s husband (who was working as a computer scientist up until his last days on earth) died a few years back, and, since then, N has perceptibly and measurably slowed down. She’s no longer all that steady on her feet. She’s frail. And she now has a caregiver pretty much full time. (N’s children are attentive and supportive, but they don’t live nearby, and N has chosen to stay in the home where she’s been for nearly 60 ears.)

By the time I need a home aide, my companion may well be a robot.  OhmniLabs is at the forefront of what’s next.

This year, OhmniLabs robots will be offered by a consumer health firm, Home Care Assistance, to retirement communities and people aging in place. The yearly cost is about 20 percent of the cost, on average, of hiring full­time caregivers, according to Lily Sarafan, chief executive of Home Care Assistance. “In five to seven years, caregiving will shift,” Ms. Sarafan said. “And a lot of home automation will become more mainstream.” (Source: NY Times)

Hey, a lot of this is pretty exciting. Assistive devices are going to help people, like my friend N and the future me, stay in our homes longer than we might otherwise be able. Hell, I wouldn’t mind having a robot to put up my Christmas tree – and put away my Christmas decorations, which requires my crawling into a narrow dark crawl space, getting dusty, and clonking myself on the head at least twice. And a light bulb-changing robot for the lights I have to get up on a ladder to reach – the ones you need to go hands on with, not the ones you can use the pole with the “fingers” to get at. Bring it on!

But whether robots will be a boon or a curse, let us face it: anything that will run at 20 percent of the cost of a human will replace the human every time.

Just two little problems.

One, the problem of what people are going to do in the brave new world. This is finally starting to creep in to the national conversation, but mostly at the hair-pulling-out level. Of course, we should have been having this conversation when manufacturing jobs started exiting for places where workers (including small children) were “happy” to make three cents and hour, and where there were no health, safety, or environmental regulations to worry about. But, of course, some of the places that lost those manufacturing jobs ended up with higher-paid and safer jobs for a lot of people. And for the others, oh, well, there was always the fallback of jobs like Walmart greeter and caregiver.

Well, not if an electronic replacement will cost 20% of what a human would.

So what exactly ARE people going to do if even the cruddy, low-wage, backbreaking jobs go away? Maybe we’ll have that UBI – universal basic income – and everyone will spend their leisure time in interesting, meaningful, and creative ways. Or maybe they’ll sit around using drugs and drinking and getting into shoot-‘em-up trouble. Or maybe they’ll just stare out the window, being depressed. Or maybe we won’t have UBI. Given that we’re now veering towards dismantling Social Security and Medicare, what makes us believe that we’ll want to support young, able-bodied folks when we’re not even willing to take care of the old geezers.

The thing is, people really do have to do something with their lives.

From a terrifically privileged position, it’s something I’m grappling with now. I’m by no means rich, but I could retire from my part-time freelance work tomorrow. And I’m working my way into retirement by revving up the volunteering and joining a couple of writing workshops. People have to do something with their time. What’s that something going to be when there are so few jobs for humans? Are we going to reopen the coal mines and let the grandsons of miners grab a pick-axe and start swinging, just for the hell of it.

And it’s not just the low-end, low-skill jobs that will be done away with. If a task can be automated, it will be. Legal discovery, once the province of recent law school grads, is largely automated. And my sister Kath’s recent surgery was done robotically. Sure, there was a surgeon at the other end of the robot, pulling its strings, but it’s just a matter of time when we’ll need fewer surgeons, OR nurses, ICU nurses, etc.

So, exactly what folks are going to do for work is one problem. There can be only so many inventors, “disrupters”, and robot-repairers. Especially when the robots become self-healing. (Robot, heal thyself.)

But back to caregivers working with seniors being replaced by Roombas.

Thuc Vu, who is the cofounder of Ohmni Labs, notes that:

There’s a huge senior population, but isolation and loneliness is still common,” he said. “And we’re also running out of caregivers, since most of them are getting older.”

I’m going to mostly ignore that latter point there. Seriously, are we really “running out of caregivers”? Maybe caregivers willing to work for $7.50 an hour, but “running out of caregivers”? Isn’t that we’re all the people being displaced have been going? The folks who used to be toll-takers, who worked in parking garages, clerked in stores, served fast food. Aren’t they available and able (if not willing) to work as caregivers?

But I’ll take on the former point: the problem of isolation and loneliness.

Yes, technology can certainly help with those issues.

People can Facetime with distant friends and relations. They can take courses online. They can take care of a doctor’s visit. And even do a bit of armchair traveling via virtual reality:

Virtual reality rejuvenated life for Abdus Shakur, 67, who lives in a Brookdale residence in Quincy, Mass. A classically trained chef, Mr. Shakur opted to take a virtual trip to a Creole restaurant in Berlin, where he once worked.

By wearing the V.R. headset, he could check out the current menu and look at the restaurant’s colorful redesign. Mr. Shakur also took virtual trips to beaches in the Caribbean, where he felt the sand under his feet and saw schools of fish under water. “I felt like I was right there,” said Mr. Shakur, who has a bad heart and doesn’t travel as much as he used to. “It gives you so much hope. I can sit in my living room and go all over the world.”

Maybe I’d feel different about this if my only option was sitting in my living room, if I was no longer physically able to travel. But I’m not all that enthusiastic about and eager to see actual interactions with actual human beings replaced by the virtual and the robotic.

Is it just me? I think I’ll always want to have a conversation with someone sentient, who’s lived, who has memories and experiences to draw on. Or, geez, at least be able to have a conversation with a dog. I’m really not looking forward to having most of my social life happen virtually, and most of my encounters occurring with robots.

If I can’t get out, I’m sure I’ll be thrilled to be able to Facetime with friends and family I can’t see up close and personal.

But if I can no longer get to a Red Sox game, I want to at least be able to share my memories with someone who has been to one. If I’m no longer able to get out and meet new people, I’d a least like to be able to learn about what’s going on in my caregiver’s life. Something beyond, “I was born in a factory in 2024, coming off the automated production line (or out of the 3D printer) on May 1st, and was customized by my parent, a coding robot, to interact with Baby Boomer women from Worcester, Massachusetts.”

Sure, my friend N would be happier if her husband was still around, if her kids and grandkids were closer, if her best friend hadn’t died the same year her husband did. But she’s sure happier with a human caregiver than she would be with a robot.

Hope there are still a few humans left to take care of us creaky elders when my turn comes. But if the robots are going to replace humans across the boards, there better be a lot of them. If there are no jobs anymore, the isolation and loneliness problems are going to get a whole lot worse.

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