Meet Rosie Robot - she'll be your nanny

How would you like to be raised by a nanny-bot? Or better still how about you put your feet up and let Rosie the robot from The Jetsons look after your kids? This scary new world is not far away.

Childcare robots have already been developed and concerns are held as to their safety and the psychological impact on children left in their care. Experiments conducted on monkeys suggest they become unable to socialise or breed with other monkeys, which provides yet another example of unnecessary and cruel treatment of animals to tell us something we already knew - a machine is not a suitable replacement for a loving parent. Is anybody surprised?

A fundamental issue here is one of those Jurassic Park type questions - I know we can do it (bring dinosaurs back to life or create nanny-bots) but should we? How about we shelve the child rearing options and design robots to clean the house and do the laundry? A sophisticated washing machine but with legs.

Over the next 20 years experts expect to design robots with artificial intelligence systems capable of complex and possibly even autonomous reasoning.

At what point do we move from designing useful machines to creating a new form of slavery?

If a robot is capable of independent and complex reasoning what moral rights does it have?

If the robot is designed with the specific purpose to assist humankind surely this is distinct from slavery, as a necessary condition of slavery is to be forced against our will.

These scenarios sometimes lead to questions about the morality of cloning humans with similar robotic traits; that is the human clone is designed so it wants nothing more than to achieve a specific menial task and thus achieves personal fulfilment by performing this task. Hopefully you are starting to feel uncomfortable!

Surely we can distinguish tasks that are best performed by machines from those that require a human relationship? We use robots to feed the sick and elderly and it may be financially beneficial to do so, but wouldn't the service be qualitatively enhanced if it was performed by a caring nurse? An important aspect of work including some menial tasks is the social interaction, which builds personal relationships, some of them difficult but nevertheless essential to human development.

I can accept the intelligent washing machine which sorts, washes, irons and puts it back in the right drawers, or an auto pilot to assist a human pilot to fly the plane more effectively. But inherently social tasks such as childcare, nursing, teaching, organising and managing require people to interact, respond and offer comfort.

Getting back to Rosie from The Jetsons, we'll have to change her job description to being a robot maid only, foregoing her favourite task of looking after little Elmo, who will just have to stumble and find his own way through life without Rosie's mix of motherly-robot-logical wisdom. I think if we appeal to our conscience, learning about life from humans and other living creatures, and being cared for by humans rather than machines, just feels right.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

At what point do we move from designing useful machines to creating a new form of slavery?


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