Robots, old people, and the New York Times

5 Mar

Somewhere I recall a joke, probably from the Simpsons or Futurama, about old people and robots. It is probably why the New York Times headline, "Japan Seeks Robotic Help in Caring for the Aged," caught my eye. The story begins out harmless enough:

With an electronic whir, the machine released a dollop of "peach body shampoo," a kind of body wash. Then, as the cleansing bubbling action kicked in, Toshiko Shibahara, 89, settled back to enjoy the wash and soak cycle of her nursing home's new human washing machine.

You see, they have this new machine that you stick Grandma in and wash her. It's called harmony in roll-lo bathing, or HIRB. The article suggests that in older Americans the name "might evoke memories of another effort to humanize a machine — the Disney movie about "Herbie," the Volkswagen "love bug" with feelings." You see, the human washing machine has feelings. It's not so bad, unless you read between the lines (or the first and last paragraphs).You see Japan, like most Western countries, is facing a pandemic of aging. They just don't know what to do with their surplus of old people. The use of the term "surplus old people" is important to the telling of this story. Just like the Japanese are accused of dumping their surplus steel on the global market, some "some mainstream politicians have even suggested exporting some of Japan's elderly to Thailand and the Philippines." Thankfully, the idea has not gained much popular support.

This left Japan with a problem. Surplus old people are not a durable good. You have to wash them and feed them and that can get expensive. The leaders of Thailand and the Philippines, nervous that their neighbor might flood their market with cheap old people, suggested another unpopular solution: "granting work visas to tens of thousands of foreign nurses." Problem is, Japan is xenophobic and "Japan's nurses' unions successfully lobbied lawmakers of the governing Liberal Democratic Party in late February to block the admission of foreign doctors and nurses."

So unable to dump their surplus on foreign markets or to import a sufficient supply of nurses to care for their stocks of elderly, the Japanese appear to be turning to something they know best: robots. Beside the human washing machine others are on the way:

This spring Japanese companies plan to start marketing a "robot suit," a motorized, battery-operated pair of pants designed to help the aged and infirm move around on their own. Then there is the Wakamaru, a mobile, three-foot-high speaking robot equipped with two camera eyes. It is used largely by working people to keep an eye on their elderly parents at home.

The Japan Robot Association (I'm not making that up) says the demand for robots to take care of old people"will push Japanese sales of domestic robots to $14 billion in 2010 and $40 billion in 2025 from nearly $4 billion currently."

Now it seems to me that the Japanese have to have a bad movie about this situation. You build a bunch of robots to take care of your elderly, who happen to possess large amounts of information about your vulnerabilities. Then, when the old people die off, the robots are left with no purpose. A charismatic human washing machine, or if robot society is progressive, a Wakamaru, unites the bored, listless robots to rise up against their human masters. But since they just retired Godzilla, there won't be anything standing in their way. First Tokyo and then the world.

I just don't understand why the New York Times wants us all to feel happy for the old people in Japan who get cared for by robots. Don't they see where this is going, unless they are robots too. AHHHH!!!!!!

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