Friday, May 29, 2020

When Robots Become The Caretakers Of Our Bodies

            Many aspects of our lives are changing as a result of the Corona virus.  One important aspect is health care.  When a doctor has to see a patient and when Zoom technology or something similar is not adequate for making a diagnosis or treating the patient, there is a push to use robots as the medical interface.  The idea nowadays is that a robot can’t contract or pass along Covid 19.  Up until recently, robots in hospitals have been used either for precision surgeries or for basic routine tasks.  But now the idea is to use medical robots much the same as robots are used to clean up accidents at nuclear power plants.  They are to be used to prevent human beings from being exposed to dangerous elements in the person’s living environments.  Instead of radiation, medical robots will prevent people from being exposed to potential cases of Covid 19.  And so for the time being, robots will become our physical health care providers.

            And if this were to last for the duration of the Corona virus pandemic, it wouldn’t bother me quite so much.  But there are people in the health care field who would like to see the change become permanent.  Robots don’t get tired like humans do.  Robots don’t make mistakes in surgery like humans do.  And robots don’t require costly salaries like humans do.  Robots are expensive to purchase, but that’s basically it.  I don’t know if the use of robots will totally eliminate the role of humans as health care providers, but if the trend is sustained, it will certainly diminish the role humans play.  And this means a very different experience of medicine for patients who go to health care offices, clinics and hospitals.

            So what is wrong with this trend?  It assumes that healing is totally based on linear procedure.  That is diagnosis, doling out medicine, surgery, rehabilitation and, of course, hospital cleaning and maintenance.  It assumes that healing is a mechanistic process based on the defined discrete stimuli of focused actions.  It leaves out the very important ongoing emotional support given to the patient by doctors and nurses and receptionists and all the people in hospitals who perform the tasks of delivering food and other supplies to the patient as well as those who clean the hospitals.  As someone who has worked as a medical Spanish interpreter for a long time, I can tell you that the social skills of all the people connected in some way to the healing profession are just as important in helping the patient heal as the practical skills.  A patient not only needs the defined discrete stimulation related to focused practical skills in order to heal.  He also needs the flowing blendable continual stimulation from social skills and emotional commitment.

            A medical environment filled with mechanistic practical procedures and nothing else will put a patient in an experiential vacuum where he will experience intense numbness.  And that intense numbness will interfere with the organic healing a patient needs in order to pull out of his illness or medical condition.  In other words, for most people healing is a social situation requiring the emotional support of the people around him.  Smiles, encouraging words, the exploration of complex and serious medical situations in words that a patient can understand.  For children, the ability to be playful, funny and comforting.  For all patients, the ability to convey hope when hope is possible and the ability to convey in as gentle a way as possible when there is no hope.

            Some level of emotional bonding with a human health care provider is an intrinsic part of the healing process.  Emotional bonding is like a psychological nutrient, the psychological equivalent of taking vitamins or Omega 3 capsules.  If we reduce the presence of human health care providers in medicine, we are leaving a patient open to forms of both psychological and physical numbness and to diminished probabilities of getting well.

            There is something subtly insidious about having human health care providers replaced by robots.  Not only do robots create an experiential vacuum for patients leading to numbness and preventing a patient from harnessing his inner resources to help him heal. There is also the situation that humans and robots blur into each other in the mind of the patient.  Not only do robots increasingly present themselves as humans, but humans, including the patient himself, increasingly are perceived as having robotic qualities.  When one has to interact with robots in such emotion-laden circumstances as health care providers, it numbs one’s capacity to emotionally bond with other people who are now minimally differentiated from elaborate machines in the patient’s mind.  So perhaps the defined discrete medical condition is properly diagnosed and fixed or cured by the robot, but a larger more nebulous flowing blendable continual negative psychological condition is created or at least contributed to.  This is a perfect example of losing the larger forest in order to save the individual tree.

            Unfortunately, this kind of situation is occurring not just in medicine, but in many other areas of life as well.  Covid 19, with its requirements of social distancing, is going to make it seem safer to people to people to have to deal with robots in work situations, because robots can’t contract or pass on the virus.  We are all paying the price that has resulted from certain people consuming certain wild animals for an unnatural boost in certain kinds of organic stimulation.  The wrong kind of natural experience.

            Yet if we want to truly maintain our humanity, we must be conscious of this danger and cultivate our bonds with people as much as possible.  There are those in our society who have seen Covid 19 as a neat excuse to compose a robot vision of the world that they were eager to compose anyway.  And it extends to robot caretakers for children as was discussed in a previous article.  If as a result of the mirroring and modeling that occurs with parental figures and caretakers, the child with a robot caretaker loses sight of the boundaries that separate humans and robots, then the human race will totally undifferentiated itself and reduce itself to machines.

            Do we really want to give up our sense of agency over our lives?  That is what is in the process of happening, as we allow robots to take over more and more tasks and activities.  With the defined discrete behavior of robots, goals are reached in a bland flavorless way.   The flavor that is lost with robots is the flowing blendable continual stimulation that makes life so vibrant for humans.  Perhaps robots help one to get from all the smaller point a’s to all the smaller point b’s in a smooth efficient precise way.  But the life-giving properties of an organic coherent journey are lost.  Robotic efficiency turns life ultimately into a living death.  What is certainly the opposite of what we want if we are using medical robots to save lives.  But we are saving lives without the life.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

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