Handle with Care

Social and Ethical Consequences of Automating Care Work. By Vidisha Mishra.

Bild: robot von Alex Knight lizenziert unter CC0

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been described as a crisis that robots were built for. As the contagion continues, it will exacerbate the well-documented global care crisis where care needs far exceed the supply of care services (Samman, Presler-Marshall, & Jones, 2016). The existing shortages in care workers—together with the need to minimize risk to doctors, nurses and other frontline care workers—is likely to propel the automation of roles in health care. Already, autonomous robot Violet can disinfect rooms and equipment with ultraviolet light, robot Tug can deliver supplies, and Pepper the robot comforts quarantined coronavirus patients at Tokyo hotels. 

The Rise of Caregiving Tech and Gender Division of Labour 

Of course, the advent of social robots in assistive care predates the coronavirus crisis. In 2018, it was estimated that the domestic industry for care robots in Japan would grow to 3.8 billion USD by 2035, parallel to a third of the Japanese population turning 65 and above. Yet, there have been limited critical examinations on the political, social, and ethical issues associated with automating care work. (Parks, 2010). For instance, it is often argued that new caregiving technologies could liberate women from the disproportionate burden of care work. However, the diffusion of timesaving domestic technologies such as the vacuum cleaner has never been linked to significant shifts in the gendered distribution of caring responsibilities within households, with anecdotal evidence firmly pointing towards the opposite

On the other hand, concerns have been raised about the larger implications of socially assistive robots, in particular, how will care and affect be materialized in the physicality of robots - could they intentionally or subconsciously (re)produce gender stereotypes? For instance, it is argued that anthropomorphized machines intentionally operate by simulating social norms, supposed gender differences, and other stereotypes to standardize human-robot interaction (Weber, 2005). Research also suggests that ‘male’ robots are perceived as threatening in the domestic environment (Carpenter et. al, 2009). It stands to reason then, that robots could reproduce and reinforce existing stereotypical social behavior for greater acceptability. Therefore, while the current crisis is likely to accelerate existing technological trends, the adoption of new caregiving technologies must be supplemented with nuanced considerations to avoid replicating stereotypes. 

The (Unequal) Future of Care Work 

Care work is deeply political and carries gender connotations. Globally, women constitute 88 percent of personal care workers, 74 percent of cleaners and helpers, and 69 percent of health professionals. In contrast, women make up only 22 percent of AI professionals globally, compared to 78 percent of men. The chasm between those who design technologies and those who are affected by them is clear. The disconnect between the male-dominated tech sector and the “largely silent” female-dominated care sector, risks creating care technologies that don’t address the immediate needs of the care workers, and worse, leads to their further marginalization.

A common quote in robotics is that robots are best suited for jobs that are too dirty, dull, or dangerous for humans; future innovations need to acknowledge and address the humans that currently do carry out these jobs. Equally, it is important to ask tough question even during times of crisis. For instance, can social justice be encoded by design in autonomous systems? What values will be needed to be built-into robot design, development, and usage for more gender-responsive outcomes? Most importantly, what are the pathways to integrate perspectives of care workers and receivers into design practices? 

Time to Reimagine Care

COVID-19 has demonstrated how fast societies can adapt to change. In the context of AI, automation, and care work, newer interventions aimed at solving the crises of overwhelmed care ecosystems must avoid undermining the very carers they seek to help. Moving forward, the current crisis presents the opportunity to reimagine care itself—perhaps this is perfect time to reframe it as a collective social contract where co-created innovations improve overall care ecosystems. While technologies have the potential to reduce drudgery and risks faced by care workers, techno-deterministic individualized narratives could lead to more harm than good. 



Vidisha Mishra works on gender and the future of work. She holds research fellowships at the Margherita von Brentano (MvBZ) Center for Gender Studies, Freie Universität Berlin and the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society, Berlin, Germany. She is a member of Women20 (W20) Network of the G20 economies.




Carpenter, J., Davis, J. M., Erwin-Stewart, N., Lee, T. R., Bransford, J. D., & Vye, N. (2009). Gender Representation and Humanoid Robots Designed for Domestic Use. International Journal of Social Robotics, 1(3), 261265.

Parks, J. (2010). Lifting the Burden of Women's Care Work: Should Robots Replace the "Human Touch"? Hypatia, 25(1), 100-120. Retrieved May 5, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/40602642

Samman, E., Presler-Marshall, E., & Jones, N. (2016). “Women ́s Work, Mothers, children and the global childcare crisis,” ODI. London. Available at: http://docplayer.net/17690651-Women-s-work-women-s-work-global-childcare-crisis-global-childcare-crisis.html

Weber, J. (2005). Helpless machines and true loving care givers: A feminist critique of recent trends in human robot interaction. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 3(4), 209-218.

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