This week, Futures tackles the difficult issues of ageing, care and robots courtesy of L. R. Conti’s story The last child. When not writing science fiction, L. R. Conti writes science fact and has had articles published in multiple publications, including Pacific Standard, The Santa Barbara Independent and Scientific American Mind. In this blog post, we discover what inspired The last child — as ever, it pays to read the story first.
Writing The last child
I wrote The last child directly under the influence of Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451. Those mechanical dogs and Guy Montag’s need to escape helped me create a world with robot companions and a certain societal repression. Although, in hindsight, it was also born in the context of Atul Gawande’s nonfiction Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I found the question: how will we care for our growing and ageing population when our society puts top priority on personal independence, jarring. I’m worried about our Boomers — and the rest of us.
Robotics isn’t a field that I generally follow, but I know that automated machines are emerging daily. And that recently scientists engineered a small, soft-robot propelled by heart cells1. The first time I saw cardiac cells beating on a Petri dish, my own heart skipped a beat. And now, strategies to 3D-print biomaterials, such as bones2, as well as methods to grow cells in 4D systems3 (think growth in all directions that can change with time), is setting the stage for larger, cell-based structures. With the additional possibilities of using donor tissue to establish stem-cell lines that can differentiate into any cell type4, ‘cellular robots’ emerged as a concept in The last child.
Although the query ‘cellular robot’ on Google shopping doesn’t conjure images of android-caregivers, I find the current availability of technological-social products intriguing. AI text-based chatbots, such as Replika, Wysa and Woebot, are marketed to provide mental well-being or even therapy. A while back, I downloaded Wysa as an app to my phone. A blue penguin told me that my secrets were safe and asked me what I was grateful for. Then it told me a knock knock joke, prompting me to interact. “Who’s there?” it suggested. It wasn’t Phillip or Anette, but maybe with some time, I’ll grow to love that little penguin.
A few years ago, I saw a YouTube video about PARO, a robot-companion in the form of a cuddly big-eyed seal. Patients in a dementia facility smiled and petted the fluffy animal. Although the research shows that PARO is good for the elderly as well as their caregivers5, I had a heartsick reaction to the story; a feeling that still lingers.
Of course, my own caregiving experiences contribute to the heart of The last child. The intimacy and burden of caring for ailing parents is rich terrain, woven with logistically and emotionally shrouded trails. Now, as a parent of adolescents, I’m observing my own children explore their boundaries. I know their newfound eagerness to break away is a genetic story that plays out generation after generation; a story, I imagined we might impose onto our robot caregivers of the future.
1. Park, S. J. et al. Science 353, 158–162 (2016). Article
2. Ashammakhi, N. et al. Adv. Healthc. Mater. https://doi.org/10.1002/adhm.201801048 (2019). Article
3. Schöneberg, J. et al. Mol. Biol. Cell 29, 2959–2968 (2018). Article
4. Hilderbrand, A. M. et al. Curr. Opin. Solid State Mater. Sci. 20, 212–224 (2016). Article
5. Lane, G. W. et al. Psychol. Serv. 13, 292–299 (2016). Article