Robot nannies? Have you heard about this? It seems someone has come up with the idea of creating robots to perform as nannies. Apparently, the main focus for this bizarre idea comes from Japan where a shortage of day care workers is forcing the Japanese to think outside the box. Well, maybe it isn't so outside the box in Japan. The Japanese are probably the most high-tech-obsessed society on Earth. They are even more obsessed with tech than Americans which, considering recent reports of people camping out in front of Apple stores weeks in advance of the iPhone 6 debut, is saying a lot. Still, it is one thing to trust an electronic device to run herd on your personal data and a completely different thing to trust the well-being of your offspring to the vagaries of the silicon chip.
I admit my opinions on the subject are not without prejudice. (Full disclosure) I, myself, am a nanny after all. In fact I am practically the quintessential nanny (Mary Poppins without the scary edge). Even my given name "Nancy" has, over the years, been so frequently mispronounced by my linguistically challenged charges as "Nanny"(then shortened to "Nan") that I have, in effect, become what I do, even to adults. And so it rubs me the wrong way to think that there are those who believe that a machine, regardless of how sophisticated, could take my place, or that what I have provided for my charges could be so easily duplicated. I rebel at the notion.
Then again, isn't this the exact same situation that workers through the years have experienced since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? Our society and our places in it have undergone radical transformation more than once ever since the dawning of the age of machines. People are displaced by devices that can do the jobs they once did quicker, cheaper, and better - (robots on the assembly line, robots performing surgery). Even whole industries just disappear as new inventions do essential things in a different way (where have all the blacksmiths gone, or the once ubiquitous telephone operators?). The development of computers, or course, has accelerated this process exponentially. This is called progress, and though progress is ultimately beneficial it also comes with a price to individuals as well as to society as a whole. Part of that price is the effect on society's image of its self and of the individual's place in it. That is why the Industrial Revolution spawned not only new industries dominated by machines but also new songs, stories, and folklore revolving around the competition of man against machine. These tales (stories like those about Paul Bunyan or John Henry etc.) are possibly the way our collective ego comes to grips with the realization that our creations are, in some ways, greater than ourselves. They also serve to assure us that, regardless of their abilities, "they" will in some ways never be equal to what resides in "us". It is telling that John Henry ("a steel driving man"), through super-human effort and will, defeats the "steam drill" only to collapse and die heroically of exhaustion while the machine, ego-less and tireless, goes on driving steel into the future. The machine may outperform and outlast its mortal maker but it can never be noble.
So let's be honest, shall we, leaving all ego aside. Has the present state of robotics reached the point where we could even remotely consider entrusting such a machine with the most precious things in our lives? I mean, seriously, I don't know about you but I'm not overly impressed with the abilities of those robot vacuum cleaners you see on TV. If we can't have faith in a robot's ability to clean our carpets effectively, how can we believe they are up to the task of raising children? That's what we are talking about here isn't it, raising children? Because that is what nannies do, you know, they help us raise our children. They are not just baby sitters; they are baby raisers. The hand that rocks the cradle, changes the diaper, and disciplines tiny tyrants shapes the next generation and the daycare worker we hand our "precious" over to every morning will, for better or worse, have an influence on the development of our child. Taking care of children requires both an emotional commitment and emotional engagement. To do that in any meaningful way a nanny robot would have to, at the least, mimic those emotions appropriate to every situation in the daily lives of its charges if not actually experience those emotions. For robots to take over the responsibility of something as uniquely human as child rearing would require a machine that exhibits spiritual qualities; qualities like patience, humor, kindness, and nobility. I'm not an expert on robotics but it seems to me that a computer algorithm that sophisticated is still a bit out of our reach regardless of how rapidly advances in computer science are coming. It may be that such a machine will never exist, but I wouldn't discount mankind's ability to achieve anything it sets its collective mind to. If we can imagine it we can probably build it, eventually any way. Who knows? Perhaps in another couple hundred years or so our creations will actually be able to "sing the body electric" (as imagined by Bradbury not Whitman). Until that fateful day, however, letting the androids take charge of the children is a dangerous and subversive idea. Rosie doesn't exist yet.