Back in 1931-1945, the Japanese attempted to get around their empathy excess by defining all non-Japanese as subhuman, but that didn’t end well for them. Ever since, they’ve been looking forward to robots as their ideal non-Japanese servants.
Americans don’t make good servants (Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, and all that). So Americans have been importing huge numbers from more submissive Third World cultures for elder care and the like. The immigrants’ children tend to grow up assimilated to American norms of non-servility, requiring more Third Worlders to be hauled in.
I can’t say the Japanese have the wrong idea, but they have to get robots working first. The main discovery of attempts at robot design over the last half-century is that general-purpose mobile robots are inferior to specialized stationary robots. Instead of inventing a robot that walks over to your kitchen sink and washes your dishes, it makes more sense to permanently install a dishwashing robot (i.e., a “dishwasher”) under your counter. Similarly, rather than design a robot to help frail people climb into bathtubs, it makes more sense to redesign the tub from the ground up to be safe for the old.
Yet I believe the classic mobile robot (rolling, not walking) will eventually emerge to serve a specific and limited role for the ambulatory old: full-time caddy. Rich golfers find they enjoy the game most when they can stroll the fairways with an attentive servant to hand them whatever they need, advise them on its proper use, and then take it off their hands again.
When I’m old and wobbly, I’d like to have a caddy follow me around the house and around the block, holding my things and keeping me on task. (In fact, I need one now.)
But it would drive me crazy to have a human assistant whom I would alternately bore and pester. I lack Bertie Wooster’s aristocratic sense of entitlement. When I’m old, I’ll want guilt-free servile companionship, which means a robot.
Robot & Frank raises the metaphysical question of what makes something human. Can simulacra easily manipulate our emotions? Can we actually care about things that can only pretend to care back?
The answer is yes. For instance, people who buy Roomba vacuum-cleaner robots frequently develop parental feelings toward their faithful—if often inept—servitors. Why do humans feel more warmly toward their Roombas than toward their dishwashers? The key emotional triggers are that Roombas move on their own, try hard, aren’t very bright, and they need much guidance and grooming. They’re like small children who love doing their chores.
Or consider the movies. For example, onscreen Frank Langella (who plays Frank) is whatever he feels like being. If he’s supposed to be a retired tough guy romancing Susan Sarandon (the librarian) in the manner of Burt Lancaster in Sarandon’s 1980 breakout Atlantic City, well, sure, he can do that.
Frank (who, in case I forgot to mention it, is played by Frank Langella) is actually a nasty criminal, but we’re all rooting for him because it’s easy to push our buttons.
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