Care robots

Here is a paragraph from an article about care robots by Geoff Watts.

Modern medicine and increasing longevity have conspired to boost the need for social care, whether in the home or in institutions. “There’s a pressing requirement for robots in the social care of the elderly, partly because we have fewer people of working age,” says Tony Belpaeme, Professor in Intelligent and Autonomous Control Systems at Plymouth University. Traditionally among the poorest paid of the workforce, carers are an ever more scarce resource. Policy makers have begun to cast their eyes towards robots as a possible source of compliant and cheaper help.

Much like with sorting algorithms in social media, which become supposedly mandatory because of allegedly inescapable information overload, care robots are always declared inevitable because of a presumably unavoidable labor shortage. 

But there is no unavoidable care-labor shortage. The key point in this paragraph is the fact that care work is poorly compensated. There likely wouldn’t be a labor shortage if care work paid better, but it seems like workers in this traditionally female field will continue to be underpaid, in part because of the broadly held assumption that “caring” should not have a price tag attached — that care is only genuine when it is unwaged. Paid-for “care” is implicitly seen as not really care at all but a faintly dubious form of human administration. In the ideology of nurture, real care can’t be given on demand but requires a genuine relationship between care giver and receiver and must be spontaneously and voluntarily produced.

It is no accident that Watts joins “cheap” with “compliant.” We don’t like the idea of care as work, because we don’t want workers to be able to withhold care when they are not fairly paid. So we make care something beyond work, and then figure out ways to make it into a manufactureable product rather than a practice.

Care robots address not the labor shortage problem, but the problem of how to pay for care without disqualifying it as care. Since care robots are not paid but purchased, they are not desanctifying care work by dragging it into the capitalistic realm of wages. That allows capitalism to persist in demanding care work and other reproductive labor without paying for it, turning it into surplus value. And once care for the elderly becomes a matter of capital investment in machines rather than a cost-intensive labor force, it can become a real growth industry.

Another way of putting that: care robots, like other worker-replacing machines, are about deskilling and devaluing human labor. (The good kind of robots work with humans as complements, enriching the skills of human operators.) 


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