“Robotic companions are being promoted as an antidote to the burden of longer, lonelier human lives. At stake is the future of what it means to be human.” M. Jackson, The New York Times
“After Constance Gemson moved her mother to an assisted living facility, the 92-year-old became more confused, lonely and inarticulate. Two full-time private aides, kind and attentive as they were, couldn’t possibly meet all their patient’s needs for connection.
So on a visit one day, Ms. Gemson brought her mom a new helper: a purring, nuzzling robot cat designed as a companion for older adults. “It’s not a substitute for care,” says Ms. Gemson, whose mother died last June at age 95. “But this was someone my mother could hug and embrace and be accepted by. This became a reliable friend.” When her mom was upset, her family or helpers brought her the cat to stroke and sing to, and she grew calmer. In her last days “what she could give, she gave to the cat,” says Ms. Gemson.
An aging population is fueling the rise of the robot caregiver, as the devices moving into the homes and hearts of the aging and sick offer new forms of friendship and aid…Winsome tabletop robots now remind elders to take their medications and a walk, while others in research prototype can fetch a snack or offer consoling words to a dying patient… Yet we should be deeply concerned about the ethics of their use. At stake is the future of what it means to be human, and what it means to care.
Issues of freedom and dignity are most urgently raised by robots that are built to befriend, advise and monitor seniors. This is Artificial Intelligence with wide, blinking eyes and a level of sociability that is both the source of its power to help and its greatest moral hazard.
When do a robot assistant’s prompts to a senior to call a friend become coercion of the cognitively frail? Will Grandma’s robot pet inspire more family conversation or allow her kin to turn away from the demanding work of supporting someone who is ill or in pain? ‘Robots, if they are used the right way and work well, can help people preserve their dignity,’ says Matthias Scheutz, a roboticist who directs Tufts University’s Human-Robot Interaction Lab. ‘What I find morally dubious is to push the social aspect of these machines when it’s just a facade, a puppet. It’s deception technology.’
For that is where the ethical dilemmas begin — with our remarkable willingness to banter with a soulless algorithm, to return a steel and plastic wink. It is a well-proven finding in the science of robotics: add a bit of movement, language, and ‘smart’ responses to a bundle of software and wires and humans see an intentionality and sentience that simply isn’t there. Such ‘agency’ is designed to prime people to engage in an eerie seeming reciprocity of care.
Social robots ideally inspire humans to empathize with them, writes Maartje de Graaf of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, who studies ethics in human-robot interactions. Even robots not designed to be social can elicit such reactions: some owners of the robot vacuum Roomba grieve when theirs gets ‘sick’ (broken) or count them as family when listing members of their household.
Many in the field see the tensions and dilemmas in robot care, yet believe the benefits can outweigh the risks. The technology is ‘intended to help older adults carry out their daily lives,’ says Richard Pak, a Clemson University scientist who studies the intersection of human psychology and technology design, including robots…
We know little about robot care’s long-term impact or possible indirect effects. And that is why it is crucial at this early juncture to heed both the field’s success stories and the public’s apprehensions.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos
Directions: Examine the titles of the post and the actual article. Examine the photos, then create a list of words and ideas that you and your group members think might be related to this article.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- The 92-year-old became more confused, lonely and inarticulate.
- The pet robots are not a substitute for care.
- The robot became a reliable friend.
- Care robots are increasly seen as an antidote to the burden of longer, lonelier human lives.
- Winsome tabletop robots now remind elders to take their medications and a walk.
- Others in research prototype can fetch a snack or offer consoling words to a dying patient.
- Since their 2016 debut, sales of robots to assist older adultsare expected to rise 25 percent annually through 2022.
- Yet we should be deeply concerned about the ethics of their use.
- This is Artificial Intelligence with wide, blinking eyes and a level of sociability that is both the source of its power to help and its greatest moral hazard.
- Some worry robot care would carry a stigma the potential of being seen as not worth human company.
Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage
Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.
- Constance Gemson moved her mother to a assisted living facility.
- Two full-time private aides were also hired.
- Ms. Gemson brought her mom a new helper: a purring, nuzzling robot cat.
- A aging population is fueling the rise of the robot caregiver.
- Thousands of robotic cats and dogs designed as companions for older people have been sold in the U.S. since 2016.
- Yet we should be deeply concerned about the ethics of their use.
- Robots, if they are used the right way and work well, can help people preserve their dignity.
- Social robots ideally inspire humans to empathize with them.
- The robot is designed to stress that it’s not an doctor or nurse but part of someone’s care team.
Identify The Speakers
Directions: Place students in groups. Hand out the following quotes from speakers in the article. Members are to identify the speakers from the article.
- “Robots, if they are used the right way and work well, can help people preserve their dignity. “What I find morally dubious is to push the social aspect of these machines when it’s just a facade, a puppet. It’s deception technology.”
- “Even robots not designed to be social can elicit such reactions: some owners of the robot vacuum Roomba grieve when theirs gets “sick” (broken) or count them as family when listing members of their household.”
- “The technology is intended to help older adults carry out their daily lives. If the cost is sort of tricking people in a sense, I think, without knowing what the future holds, that might be a worthy trade-off. Still he wonders, “Is this the right thing to do?”
- “The robot is one thing, but you still need interaction that’s not programmed.”
- “It’s not a substitute for care,”
III. Post Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
- Who or What is the article about?
- Where does the action/event take place?
- When does the action/event take place?
- Why did the action/event occur?
- How did the action/event occur?
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
- Do you interact with any robots in your home (e.g., the Roomba vacuum), school, job, public facilities (e.g., restrooms, recreation areas ) or institutions such as banks, museums or libraries? If yes, describe them and how you interact with them.
- Have you ever interacted with an actual robot pet? what was your experience like?
- Is there a senior member in your family who has a robotic companion? If yes, how do they interact with the pet?
- Do you think robotic pets are a good idea for seniors? Why or why not?
- According to the article what are the benefits of seniors having robot companions?
- The article raises two issues of concern with the robots programmed to befriend and advise seniors. What are the issues and why do they cause concern?
- There are new “soft-law” guidelines that professionals state the robots need to have. What are they?
- In your opinion, are there certain tasks we should not allow robots to do because they would be considered unethical?
- List something new that you have learned from this article. List something that you did not understand in this article. List something that you would like to add to this article. Share your responses with the class.