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How much do we value human empathy? Automation of care will tell

Marija Gavrilov
Jun 5 · 4 min read

How much do our societies really value human empathy? Answering this question will be the guiding light for job automation within the next decade, as we approach the automation age crossroads, deciding the role of humans in the intelligent economy. At this passage, we will have advanced robotics to the point where the machines can take over every predictable task, pushing humans further into the abyss of the neverending quest for purpose.

Long gone will be the times when physical manoeuvres of robots were inferior to humans. The “Cambrian explosion” in vision, coupled with exponential improvements of computing power, data accumulation, storage, hardware, and drops in pricing will get industrial robots and collaborative robots a foot in the door in most industries.

The frontier of humanness in the labor market — the care workers — along with the healthcare industry will need to re-evaluate empathy earlier than many other professions. According to a 10-year survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, personal aide jobs and healthcare will be among the fastest-growing occupations, projected to contribute one-fifth of all new jobs by 2026. At the same time, many other jobs will be diminishing. In 2030, when thirty-four countries become “super-aged”, with one in five citizens over 65, the elderly care industry will already have lamented over the fact that it is short on human workers, and those who do stay in the job for more than three years have to do a side job to pay the bills.

Shortage of human workers in low-paid fields is a threat and an opportunity. The decision the industry makes in the next five to seven years, between mass automation due to the shortages, with the exclusion of human, or partial automation with the repurposed role of the care worker, will set the expectations for valuing human skills in the automation age. I’ll cover two scenarios while acknowledging that they represent two ends of a spectrum with many nuances in between.

As the cost of manufacturing a robot declines — by some forecasts just around $10,000 per industrial robot by 2025, whereas smaller household units will go well below that — the demand across industries will grow. Robots will become cheap and efficient care laborers for all predictable tasks at hand. More importantly, customers will grow reliant on the technology, and compliant with the eradication of human laborers as less effective, prone to error, and more expensive option. Japanese engineers have already developed robots that serve as personal assistants and companions for the elderly, as the country adjusts to a lack of humans in these services. The technology is being implemented in a range of settings, from pill dispensers to companions, and gentle assistants to elderly with limited mobility. Programmed to check in on patients, gaze warmly at them, and provide comfort through touch, these robots aim to substitute human presence, physical and mental. In an effort to robotize nursery homes, human carers will become a premium, reserved for those who can pay for human empathy and touch. Empathy as such will become commoditized, a commercial good with its own market and pumped-up value.

The second scenario considers human empathy as a basic right for every person, and places access to it high on the pedestal of well-being. Automation of elderly care in this case means introducing collaborative robots that work alongside and for the care worker. Cobots would empower the human to be a better counsellor, companion, and a friend to the patient, by taking over routine tasks, or empowering the human to do them efficiently and with more ease.

Source: Riken

Care worker’s role now becomes centered around providing emotional and psychological support to their patient, mining new value from their role. As empathy and sympathy become specialized skills with an established evaluation and selection criteria for the job, the value of carers will grow. In the world where many predictable jobs are being substituted for cheap, efficient automatons, care will establish itself in the echelon of jobs that require “true human nature” — the experience of dreaming, suffering, hoping, loving, and regretting. This could have positive spillover effects on other industries and jobs. Despite robotization, people will recreate jobs that require personal connection, curiosity, and social awareness. If we achieve this state, we will be headed towards creating a care economy — a system of exchange, wealth, and innovation based on care. Empathy will become the basic unit of measuring success and well-being, and some of the highest valued jobs will have nurture in their core.

Meditation on robotization and disappearing human jobs extends far beyond speculations on its extent and timing — it is de facto already pushing the income away from workers to owners. However, we still have a chance to turn it into the favor of the majority, by re-creating the core of economic activity to represent the best of human values. Elderly care is among the frontier professions to lead the way: by investing more into cobots versus full automation, and, crucially, by raising the value of the human in the loop.

This short essay came into being as a response to a writing prompt for an MA program application a couple of years ago. Since then, many have written and meditated on the future of care at a greater depth: it’s a conversation we need more voices to get involved — especially the carers!

Marija Gavrilov

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