Home > Agency, computing, ethics > Baths, Robots, and Agency

Baths, Robots, and Agency

Sherry Turkle gave a brilliant talk at the GVU Brown Bag at Georgia Tech today about her book Alone Together. Towards the end of the question session, she had a fascinating exchange with Carl DiSalvo about robots to bathe elders.  Sherry argued that people who no longer can bathe themselves should be bathed by caring humans.  (I can imagine the dialog: “Hello Mrs. Johnson! It’s time for your bath. I saw your son was here yesterday. Did you have a good visit?”)

Carl responded: We all agree that would be ideal. But in reality, the attendants are often workers paid minimum wage who are unkind to their charges. When you interview real nursing home patients on the subject, they all say “I’d rather be bathed by a robot who isn’t expected to care than by a human who fails to care.”

Here’s my thought in reply: What’s the difference between a robot that bathes you and one that you use to bathe yourself?  It’s a subtle point–a question of where the sense of agency resides.  (Of course when I’m done bathing myself, I’d also like a real human to ask how my visit with my son yesterday went.)

A hygiene-assist robot is an easier problem to solve than a sociable robot–one whose primary purpose is social or emotional.  Could we still keep the sense of agency with the person in those cases? It’s harder to understand what that might mean.  The problems Turkle raises in her book are serious.

This theme of agency and of designing to keep the sense of agency with the individual keeps cropping up in different areas of HCI. It feels to me like a core principle–something we should highlight in HCI classes and emphasize wherever possible in design. The more this technology pervades different aspects of life, the more human agency seems important.


Categories: Agency, computing, ethics
  1. March 31, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    I’m hoping to engage Sherry Turkle and Jane McGonigal in a discussion on the relative costs and benefits of online vs. offline interactions in the Social Mediator forum of an upcoming issue of ACM Interactions. Jane offered her thoughts in a comment on my blog post, but so far, I have only been able to garner a tweet from @STurkle. If she’s still around, perhaps you can offer some encouragement to consider sharing some of her insights in another forum …

    Slightly off topic, I heard an interesting interview on Earth Beat last night with Katherine, author of The Dirt on Clean, who discussed a number of interrelated hygienic, sociological and even religious aspects to dirt, cleanliness and bathing.

  2. barrykort
    April 4, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Sherry Turkle will be Krista Tippett’s guest for the hour on this week’s edition of public radio’s “On Being” — a conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, ideas, and the big questions at the center of human life.

    Alive Enough? Reflecting on Our Technology

    http://being.publicradio.org/index.shtml (Airdate: April 7)

    “Sherry Turkle, founder and director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self, says that we need to reflect and converse on technology’s effects on our attentiveness and relationships, our sense of reality, and even of aliveness. She offers both reflective and usable ideas — from why you might want to consider declaring email bankruptcy to how to create what she calls sacred spaces amidst the digital landscapes of our lives.”

  3. Katherine
    June 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Actually, the agency point you make is a huge difference.

    A robot that you command to bathe you? That is assistive technology, like every other technology we use (just imagine a robot that we command to find things on the internet for us!).

    A robot that bathes you whether you want it or not? That’s infantilization and an invasion of bodily autonomy.

    This is also kind of like the super important difference between living in a hospital and living in your own apartment with caregivers you manage and hire to come in. It may not look any different, but there’s a world of difference.

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