Thanks to improvements in medicine humans are living longer and can be kept alive well past the point at which they would naturally die. On the plus side, longer life is generally (but not always) good. On the downside, this longer lifespan and medical intervention mean that people will often need extensive care in their old age. This care can be a considerable burden on the caregivers. Not surprisingly, there has been an effort to develop a technological solution to this problem, specifically companion robots that serve as caregivers.
While the technology is currently fairly crude, there is clearly great potential here and there are numerous advantages to effective robot caregivers. The most obvious are that robot caregivers do not get tired, do not get depressed, do not get angry, and do not have any other responsibilities. As such, they can be ideal 24/7/365 caregivers. This makes them superior in many ways to human caregivers who get tired, get depressed, get angry and have many other responsibilities.
There are, of course, some concerns about the use of robot caregivers. Some relate to such matters as their safety and effectiveness while others focus on other concerns. In the case of caregiving robots that are intended to provide companionship and not just things like medical and housekeeping services, there are both practical and moral concerns.
In regards to companion robots, there are at least two practical concerns regarding the companion aspect. The first is whether or not a human will accept a robot as a companion. In general, the answer seems to be that most humans will do so.
The second is whether or not the software will be advanced enough to properly read a human’s emotions and behavior in order to generate a proper emotional response. This response might or might not include conversation—after all, many people find non-talking pets to be good companions. While a talking companion would, presumably, need to eventually be able to pass the Turing Test, they would also need to pass an emotion test—that is, read and respond correctly to human emotions. Since humans often botch this, there would be a fairly broad tolerable margin of error here. These practical concerns can be addressed technologically—it is simply a matter of software and hardware. Building a truly effective companion robot might require making them very much like living things—the comfort of companionship might be improved by such things as smell, warmth and texture. That is, to make the companion appeal to all the senses.
While the practical problems can be solved with the right technology, there are some moral concerns with the use of robot caregiver companions. Some relate to people handing off their moral duties to care for their family members, but these are not specific to robots. After all, a person can hand off the duties to another person and this would raise a similar issue.
In regards to those specific to a companion robot, there are moral concerns about the effectiveness of the care—that is, are the robots good enough that trusting the life of an elderly or sick human would be morally responsible? While that question is important, a rather intriguing moral concern is that the robot companions are a deceit.
Roughly put, the idea is that while a companion robot can simulate (fake) human emotions via cleverly written algorithms to respond to what its “emotion recognition software” detects, these response are not genuine. While a robot companion might say the right things at the right times, it does not feel and does not care. It merely engages in mechanical behavior in accord with its software. As such, a companion robot is a deceit and such a deceit seems to be morally wrong.
One obvious response is that people would realize that the robot does not really experience emotions, yet still gain value from its “fake” companionship. To use an analogy, people often find stuffed animals to be emotional reassuring even though they are well aware that the stuffed animal is just fabric stuffed with fluff. What matters, it could be argued, is the psychological effect—if someone feels better with a robotic companion around, then that is morally fine. Another obvious analogy is the placebo effect: medicine need not be real in order to be effective.
It might be objected that there is still an important moral concern here: a robot, however well it fakes being a companion, does not suffice to provide the companionship that a person is morally entitled to. Roughly put, people deserve people, even when a robot would behave in ways indistinguishable from a human.
One way to reply to this is to consider what it is about people that people deserve. One reasonable approach is to build on the idea that people have the capacity to actually feel the emotions that they display and that they actually understand. In philosophical terms, humans have (or are) minds and robots (of the sort that will be possible in the near future) do not have minds. They merely create the illusion of having a mind.
Interestingly enough, philosophers (and psychologists) have long dealt with the problem of other minds. The problem is an epistemic one: how does one know if another being has a mind (thoughts, feelings, beliefs and such)? Some thinkers (which is surely the wrong term given their view) claimed that there is no mind, just observable behavior. Very roughly put, being in pain is not a mental state, but a matter of expressed behavior (pain behavior). While such behaviorism has been largely abandoned, it does survive in a variety of jokes and crude references to showing people some “love behavior.”
The usual “solution” to the problem is to go with the obvious: I think that other people have minds by an argument from analogy. I am aware of my own mental states and my behavior and I engage in analogical reasoning to infer that those who act as I do have similar mental states. For example, I know how I react when I am in pain, so when I see similar behavior in others I infer that they are also in pain.
I cannot, unlike some politicians, feel the pain of others. I can merely make an inference from their observed behavior. Because of this, there is the problem of deception: a person can engage in many and various forms of deceit. For example, a person can fake being in pain or make a claim about love that is untrue. Piercing these deceptions can sometimes be very difficult since humans are often rather good at deceit. However, it is still (generally) believed that even a deceitful human is still thinking and feeling, albeit not in the way he wants people to believe he is thinking and feeling.
In contrast, a companion robot is not thinking or feeling what it is displaying in its behavior, because it does not think or feel. Or so it is believed. The reason that a person would think this seems reasonable: in the case of a robot, we can go in and look at the code and the hardware to see how it all works and we will not see any emotions or thought in there. The robot, however complicated, is just a material machine, incapable of thought or feeling.
Long before robots, there were thinkers who claimed that a human is a material entity and that a suitable understanding of the mechanical workings would reveal that emotions and thoughts are mechanical states of the nervous system. As science progressed, the explanations of the mechanisms became more complex, but the basic idea remained. Put in modern terms, the idea is that eventually we will be able to see the “code” that composes thoughts and emotions and understand the hardware it “runs” on.
Should this goal be achieved, it would seem that humans and suitably complex robots would be on par—both would engage in complex behavior because of their hardware and software. As such, there would be no grounds for claiming that such a robot is engaged in deceit or that humans are genuine. The difference would merely be that humans are organic machines and robots are not.
It can, and has, been argued that there is more to a human person than the material body—that there is a mind that cannot be instantiated in a mere machine. The challenge is a very old one: proving that there is such a thing as the mind. If this can be established and it can be shown that robots cannot have such a mind, then robot companions would always be a deceit.
However, they might still be a useful deceit—going back to the placebo analogy, it might not matter whether the robot really thinks or feels. It might suffice that the person thinks it does and this will yield all the benefits of having a human companion.