“Like other forms of social change, robot acceptance may simply require one generation to replace the previous one.”

August 19th, 2012

One of the biggest obstacles (barriers?) to the development of technology that can perform the role traditionally reserved for attorneys is not one of science–that will come soon enough. The opposition is social. People–both attorneys and clients–are not ready to have the human element eliminated. In many respects, this change is understandable, and rational.

This article, which focuses on the elderly adopting care-taking robots, is very much on point. Just substitute “elderly” for “clients needing legal services” and “care-taking” for “legal services.”

The path toward robot acceptance may also require something very simple and, for robot manufacturers, frustrating: patience. The process of getting old people to be comfortable with robots, Saxena argues, will be a question of gradual acclimatization. Elderly people will have to get used to having small, nonthreatening observer robots watching them in their homes before they’ll allow robots do tasks on their behalf—or even touch them.

And the truth is, boomers who grew up long before the rise of computers or smartphones may never be comfortable with the idea of replacing a human being with a machine. Like other forms of social change, robot acceptance may simply require one generation to replace the previous one. According to Levy, only when today’s young people—already comfortable with Siri—become old  will we see Robot & Frank play out in real life. By that time, not only will robotic technology be more sophisticated, but the elderly, for better or worse, will be accustomed to service bots as unremarkable tools for everyday life.

In Robot & Frank’s final scene, Frank sees a group of elderly men walking through a large complex, each trailed by a personal robot that will assist them, presumably, until their deaths. For some people, that vision may be a triumph for technology, to others, a defeat for humanity, and for most of us, some combination of both. It’s a vivid reminder that the future of old age is coming, and, sooner or later, we’ll have to start getting used to it.

Though, really, the largest obstacle will remain attorneys who oppose this change. The change will come. They just have to get used to it.