Robotic caregivers are a bad idea (but not just for the obvious reasons)

Denyse O’Leary
24 April 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Earlier this week, we looked at technological advances that cause anxiety for many. One was robot caregivers.

By definition, caregiving isn't something we associate with robots; the whole point of robots is that they don't care. That's why we can use them to detonate bombs .

But never mind whether we would want an "iCarebot." Why would we need one?

Greater longevity and lower birth rates are heightening the need for elder care worldwide , but many young people migrate in search of work. Ideally, the two groups will find each other.

But that is only if immigration is considered an acceptable solution. Some countries, especially ethnocultural mosaics like Canada, do encourage immigrants with caregiving skills. In 2012 , for example:

257,515 immigrants entered Canada, a slight jump from 2011 when we accepted 248,751. The government has set an annual target of between 240,000 to 265,000 for the near term.

2013 saw record numbers . Predictably, aging Canada fast tracks immigrants with health care skills .

And in the United States (also a cultural mosaic), a caregiver crisis is , in which an estimated 1.3 million new positions will be needed.

But Japan, which leads the way in developing robotic caregivers, is different. It is a unique, ancient culture that has not adapted well to the immigration levels accepted elsewhere. Japan Times has called the country's "revolving-door" immigration policy hard-wired to fail :

For example, consider 2008's visa program to import elderly-care nurses from the Philippines and Indonesia.

These NJ were all qualified nurses in their own countries, so their only real obstacle was the Japanese language. Yet this visa program required that they pass the same nursing exam that native speakers sit. Within a time limit of three years. Otherwise they lose their visas and get sent home.

This, coupled with a full-time job (of humiliating unskilled labor, including bathing patients and setting tables) and insufficient institutional support for learning kanji, ensured they would fail. And they did: The Yomiuri (Jan. 5) reported that 95 percent of the Indonesians tested over the past three years did not pass - and more than half (even one of those who did pass) have gone home. Future applications have since dried up.

And from The Economist we learn that despite the "desperate need,"

One way to plug the gap would be to employ foreign nurses. Unfortunately, rather than being welcomed, foreigners seeking to work in Japan are discouraged as a matter of national policy. Japanese immigration authorities issue no more than 50,000 work visas a year - remarkably few for a country of 128m people. These visas go mainly to ex-patriot professionals with job offers from firms in Japan, or to "exotic dancers" seeking work in hostess bars and the like. The result is that, unlike other countries, Japan has few foreign nurses ready and willing to do the caring jobs locals prefer not to do, but which desperately need doing.

That, we are told, drives the trend to automate care.

But now let's turn it around. What would the effect of robotic care be in countries where there are fewer cultural barriers to immigration? If care settings started using robots instead of people to save money, they would thereby reduce employment (and immigration). And robocare is probably not a change most seniors even want. So it sounds like a bad deal all around.

If we look at it from an economic perspective, the pension money a senior spends on assisted living is not "wasted." It is recycled back into the economy as a young person's salary.

As long as a country can accept immigration, the need for late life assistance is a job opportunity for young people with an interest in health care.

Alternatively: iCarebot, here are your duties. And good luck with that: