Are Human Care Jobs Insulated from Robotic Replacements?

In a CNBC interview with Lee Rainie of Pew Research Center, he stated that “anything that involves dealing directly with people and taking care of them” is insulated from robotic replacements in the workforce. Examples given are hair stylists, physicians, and those caring for people in nursing homes. Yet, even as Lee shared these remarks on national television, there were companies hard at work in the robot nanny industry, creating robotic replacements for what used to be (and still is) the work of caretakers. These robot applications range from entertaining and educating children (even if just supplemental at this point) as well as support or care for the elderly. There seems to be this assumption that the “high-touch” jobs are protected because there is something that we value or depend upon amid these human interactions.

What this misses is what Sherry Turkle refers to as the robotic moment. This is not a Terminator-esque takeover of robots, but something far less violent. It is the moment when we accept or even prefer a robotic substitute for a human interaction. It is happening with our interactions at banks and grocery stories, and many struggle to imagine a time when we would accept a similar technological substitute in healthcare, childcare, or even something like hair stylists. This underestimates the way in which contemporary technologies shape up, even changing that with which we are comfortable and value.

As much as I respect Lee Rainie’s work and that of Pew Research Center, my study of this subject indicates a very different potential future, especially within the next 20-40 years, one where a growing number of people will indeed accept or prefer a robotic or technological caregiver.

I don’t write this as a determinist. We can still shape what happens, but these technologies shape us as well, and suggesting to people that human interaction jobs are safe…that risks cutting off an important conversation. I don’t think we can disregard talk about robotic replacement of educators, for example, as something so outlandish as not to warrant our study and attention.