Weighing the pros and cons of artificially intelligent caregivers

A columnist considers what he'd gain — and lose — with a robot caregiver

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by Kevin Schaefer |

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The 2002 science-fiction film “Minority Report” imagines a world in which a specialized police unit uses psychic technology to detect crimes before they happen. Tom Cruise plays a detective who’s part of the “Precrime” division, and it’s his job to arrest would-be murderers and criminals. Based on the novella by Philip K. Dick, the movie is one of many futuristic stories that examine the possibilities and dangers associated with advanced technology and artificial intelligence (AI).

As AI programs advance in our world today, the concepts behind movies like “Minority Report,” “I, Robot,” and “Blade Runner” are becoming more plausible than they were 20 years ago. Robots are already showing up in office spaces and on our doorsteps to deliver packages and fast food. The radical possibilities of AI pose an interesting question for those of us with SMA.

What if we had artificially intelligent caregivers?

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I’ve seen this question pop up in SMA and muscular dystrophy Facebook groups, and it’s one worth pondering. Even if we’re still a ways off from the potential of using robots to bathe and dress us, the idea is enticing.

One of the biggest hurdles that every individual with SMA faces is finding reliable caregivers. Sometimes, a new hire doesn’t even show up, leaving their client stuck in bed without a backup option. In other cases, communication issues lead to major conflicts. Breaking up with a caregiver is a headache-inducing scenario, and it happens quite regularly in our community.

Even when we have great caregivers, those of us with SMA still encounter frustrations. We wish we didn’t have to rely on other people for the most minuscule physical tasks. No matter how compatible we are with a caregiver, we still have times when we’d rather be alone and not have to ask another human to put us to bed.

It’s in those moments that the notion of a robotic assistant can be compelling. With a nonhuman caregiver, we wouldn’t have to cling to feelings of guilt or inadequacy. Nor would we have to worry about a robot showing up on time or fulfilling duties the way we’d need them to. Having that autonomy is a spectacular thing to imagine.

And yet, there are wonders that come with caregiver relationships that no machine will ever be able to mimic. In my life, caregivers are a fundamental part of my everyday existence. They’re not just people who are paid to get me in and out of my wheelchair and to the bathroom. We go to dinners and movies together. We’re invested in each other’s daily lives and support each other. Above all, we share emotional connections that could never happen with an artificial replacement.

For longtime readers of my column, I certainly can’t imagine my life without my previous caregiver and lifelong brother, Randy. No robot could ever laugh hysterically while their client sits in a pool at the Disneyland hotel with their bathing suit falling off. No robot could share travel experiences and emotional resonance in the same way as humans.

Despite the conveniences associated with artificially intelligent caregivers, I wouldn’t trade my human assistants for anything. No matter the ups and downs, genuine human connection is something you can’t put a price tag on.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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