Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: Robot burial

Robots make a come back to Futures this week — but they return in a very unusual situation. Robot burial by H. E. Roulo offers a fresh take on the future relationships we might have with our robotic assistants. Previously, H. E. Roulo has explored the world of Metrics for Futures, and she has just released the first book in her Plague Master series. You can find more about her activities at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she explains what inspired her latest tale — as ever it pays to read the story first.

Writing Robot burial

A story doesn’t come together all at once. It’s a combination of ideas, and I’ve found that the best results are the ones that look most different from what I think I’m sitting down to write.

I’d been considering advances in autonomous robots. In addition to familiar vacuuming robots, soon we may have self-driving cars reducing the need for truckers or touch screens replacing staff at order counters. As automation becomes more elaborate, robots advance into a grey area between mimicry and authenticity in appearance and thought. At what point do their differences become indistinguishable from us? Will our treatment of them evolve as well?

In particular, I’d read about efforts to use robots to provide the elderly with two vital needs: care and companionship. I find the question of how similar to humans we should make the artificial care giver, especially for elderly who are impaired by dementia or Alzheimer’s, troubling and worth exploring. Are we denying patients vital connections otherwise lacking, or tricking them into attachments with an artificial substitute that cannot (or should not) reciprocate?

If stuffed animals, beloved pets and temperamental cars can be attributed personality, how much more confusing when the object looks and sound like us? But I didn’t want to revisit the well-worn trope of robot sentience. Instead, I took an outside perspective of the relationship that might have developed between a disabled woman and her care-giving robot. Her son knows the bond they formed, one that he might otherwise have been responsible for.

Such comfort and care is very personal, hinted at when he talks about how it came to understand his mother’s idiosyncrasies. A robot that specializes in one person would be unique and valuable, but only to that person. Unlike human workers, this hypothetical robot may not adapt as readily as technology faces a race towards obsolescence. How, then, to reconcile the importance of personalized care, gratitude for that level of service, and our growing intimacy with technology?

In Robot burial, I wanted to honour the notion of the caregiver, in whatever form it takes.


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