THE BLOG

When Robots Begin to Care

03/09/2015 04:03 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

This past week, in an article titled "Be Calm, Robots Aren't About to Take Your Job, MIT Economist Says," the Wall Street Journal spoke with my colleague, economist David Autor, on the subject of robotics and the labor force. Autor provided a number of compelling reasons not to worry about robots stealing jobs from humans, chiefly:

• There's a serious skill gap between robots and people when it comes to jobs that require a human touch.
• Automation increases the productivity of the entire economy, allowing society as a whole to produce more wealth, which is a good thing.

He's right on both counts--for now--and as I'll explain, even if robots do achieve human skills and take over some jobs sooner than expected, it might be exactly what our aging society needs.

Expanding on Autor's first point, another recent Wall Street Journal piece, titled "Why Robots Still Can't Fold Your Laundry," makes the case that machines, though adept at repetitive tasks such as, say, multiplying numbers and affixing caps to bottles, still lack the many subtle decision-making skills that we humans take for granted when completing highly tactile tasks. That finding might seem reassuring to folks who fold laundry for a living--except for the fact that, as tech author Martin Ford pointed out on Twitter, there now is a robot that can fold laundry. And it's not the only one capable of increasingly sensitive jobs. For instance, Rethink Robotics' Baxter is able to perform complex actions in close proximity to people, in part because it's equipped with sensors designed to prevent it from harming humans who come into contact with its moving limbs.

But even if robots do take on jobs once thought to belong solely to the realm of Homo sapiens, alarm bells may still be uncalled for. In fact, in some sectors, such a development might even be a godsend. For instance, because people in most countries are living longer and have fewer children, the world is growing older, and it is facing a shortage of the workers needed to solve old-age-related concerns. Particularly troubling is what's been termed "the caregiver crisis" : that is, there soon will be far too few professional caregivers, such as home health aids and nursing assistants, and not enough money to pay them.

But recall Autor's second point: robots (and other forms of workplace automation, such as sophisticated algorithms) make society as whole wealthier by enabling fewer humans to get more work done. For a society facing a caregiving crisis, a robot that could help with caregiving is exactly the sort of thing we need--and it may be coming sooner than many think. This February, Riken, a Japanese research institute, debuted Robear, an experimental caregiver robot that, using sensors and motors designed for gentle movements, can tenderly pick up a person from bed and deposit her in a wheelchair. Yes, such advances may eventually equate to fewer jobs for human caregivers, but at the same time the ability of the remaining caregivers to provide care will be amplified. Meanwhile, other, ancillary jobs will appear: Humans will be needed to not only to make and program new robots, but also install and repair them, and to instruct caregivers on how to use any new hardware or software.

One of the biggest issues that comes up in discussions concerning robotics and labor is not the question of whether such technologies will grow the economy, but how that new wealth will be distributed. As robotics become more and more capable, one line of thinking goes, couldn't the economy eventually consist only of corporations with few or no human workers and only a handful of wealthy stakeholders at the top?

In the case of caregiving robotics and other old-age-facing technologies, it's important to remember that any legitimately helpful technological advance will make us all richer--or at least diminish the economic attrition of age-related issues like the coming caregiving crisis. Consider: In 2012, long-term care in the United States alone cost a total of $219.9 billion (almost two thirds of which was paid by Medicaid), a number that stands to significantly increase in the coming decades. Perhaps more importantly, informal, unpaid caregiving provided by family or friends of the care recipient is now worth $522 billion per year in the U.S., a new Rand Corporation study reports.

Putting aside the ethics of robotic care (which I've discussed in detail here), should robots move into caregiving and other related jobs in support of an aging society, a significant part of the wealth created would come in the form of immediate relief for taxpayers and informal caregivers. Robots that lessen the burden of care, therefore, won't only help us provide for tomorrow's older adults--they also stand to make the world a more equal place.

MIT AgeLab's Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article.