Human touches

Something you used to take for granted that’s becoming a luxury good: interacting with human beings.

Sox is a simple animation; she barely moves or emotes, and her voice is as harsh as a dial tone. But little animated hearts come up around her sometimes, and Mr. Langlois loves when that happens.

Mr. Langlois is on a fixed income. To qualify for Element Care, a nonprofit health care program for older adults that brought him Sox, a patient’s countable assets must not be greater than $2,000.

Such programs are proliferating. And not just for the elderly.

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

The rich do not live like this. The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them. Conspicuous human interaction — living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email — has become a status symbol.

Another example: I recently heard an interview with the creator of Woebot, It’s an app for your phone that delivers cognitive behavioral therapy via chat bot. (And yeah, when the interview began, I thought, “You have got to be kidding me,” but there is some real thought behind this; CBT is a very specific type of therapy that lends itself to this approach, the thing is created by actual psychologists with a good background for this sort of thing, and the reality is even those with insurance often can’t afford much or any mental health care.)

So… screen-delivered services are not inherently bad or inferior. Ordering food delivery via an app is fantastically better than talking to someone on the phone and having to repeat your order, your address, and your credit card number three times. In many situations self-service checkouts are pretty handy.

But as we move beyond those obvious use cases into things like virtual and robotic pets, chatbot therapists, sexbots (OK, I bet rich people will actually buy a lot of those), and so on, where do we cross the line from making useful things available to more people to creating a two-tier society?

The article above talks about education, where I guess the counter argument is that we already have a two-tier (at least) society, which is a good example.

Finally – rich or poor, I think this will probably feed into the overall isolation of modern culture, where it’s easier than ever to be alone with others around.

As I read about Mr Langlois above, I thought about one of my aunts in Northern Ireland, who lives in a care home (quite nice and homey, I saw it a few years ago) and has a caregiver who stops in daily. Knowing that she has those interactions with someone every day, even when the rest of the family may be busy and unable to come by, is pretty significant. (This all happens without crazy American-style financial burdens, because of course she lives in the socialist United Kingdom and the horrible bureaucracy of the National Health Service makes it possible for ordinary people to get this kind of care.)

I do wonder if her children in their old age will find themselves in a similar care home in their old age, but visited by their robotic health aide instead of a human being.

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