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.