While My Robot Gently Weeps

The possibility of a robot-apoclaypse — in which robots either enslave, destroy, or otherwise disrupt human civilization — has been a recurring plot of science-fiction for some time now. The Terminator franchise is perhaps the most recognizable and popular variation on the theme. In these stories the robots are malign in their clinical, calculating, robot-like way. Not the sorts of creatures one would envision offering comfort and sympathy by one’s death-bed. But this is the scenario Dan Chen’s installation, “Last Moment Hospital,” invites us to imagine and even experience.

The robot Chen created amounts to a padded mechanical arm that “senses” the impending moment of death and while stroking the patient’s outstretched arm offers these words of succor:

“I am the Last Moment Robot. I am here to help you and guide you through your last moment on Earth. I am sorry that your family and friends can’t be with you right now, but don’t be afraid. I am here to comfort you. You are not alone, you are with me. Your family and friends love you very much, they will remember you after you are gone.”

According to Leslie Katz’s write up of the exhibit, Chen’s intent is two-fold:

“On the one hand, the image ‘reveals the cruelty of life, lack of human support/social connections,’ Dan Chen, who created the robot, tells Crave. ‘On the other hand, the robot becomes something that you can trust/depend on. It could give you the ‘placebo effect’ of comfort.'”

This, again, is an art exhibit, but one does not have to stretch the imagination very far to imagine it as a very real feature of end-of-life care in, say, Japan, for example, where robots already serve many similar purposes.

There’s a great deal that can be said about this exhibit, its message (if I may be so crass), and its plausibility. Others will be able to say most of those things with greater depth and wisdom than I; but there’s one observation I’d like to register, however inadequately.

It will be tempting for many to see in this installation a parable of technology’s nefarious application, of the manner in which machines barbarize society. But this exhibit, and its materialization if it comes to it, signals not the manner in which machines brutalize humanity, but rather another sad truth, how humanity brutalizes itself.

Technology is not neutral. This is the point I usually stress. But we are not, therefore, absolved of the manner in which we put our technologies to use. Moreover, we are not absolved of the guilt incurred by the creation of conditions which finally necessitate the design of technologies of care that must perform the acts of love and mercy that are the proper work of human persons.

The robot-apocaplyse, if it comes to it, will not arise from the maliciousness of robots, but from the inhumanity of human beings toward each other. It is a paradox: our machines become more human to the degree that we become more machine-like. The great task before us, then, is to fulfill our humanity in such a way that robots will never be needed to do for us what we alone can do for one another.

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