It’s sometimes reassuring to imagine that when the robots finally take over, and all of our mundane repetitive tasks are in the hands of automatons, we will still want and need the comforting touch of real people.
I’ve argued as much myself, suggesting that the future for the physical therapies is assured because people will always want skilled, caring, thoughtful physical touch – the kind of touch no machine will ever be able to replace (Nicholls 2017).
But what this argument misses is that its entirely possible for robots to replace physical therapies because they are robots.
This point is explored in this beautiful short film by Oliver Schwartz, that explores the relationship a middle-aged, single man has with a sex doll named Jenny.
The film is about loneliness and intimacy and the possibilities for these things to be found not with other people, but with surrogates. And while these may be a substitute for ‘the real thing’, they are, none the less, a significant and meaningful substitute for some.
Haptic technology – the technology to do with the use of touch – has become hugely important in today’s media-saturated world. Most of us today use communication technologies that are much more dependent on touch than used to be the case (smartphones, tablets, email, etc.). And what this is showing is that many of us coming to see touch-based communication and virtual interaction as the norm.
Some may pine for an Arcadian time when everyone lived in a village and all communication was face-to-face, but this isn’t the reality for most people who now live a hyper-modern, hassled and harried, time-poor existence, in which the space to form long-term meaningful relationships with people is increasingly uncommon.
For some, like the residents of this remote Japanese village, dolls replace that which has been lost and will never return.
Of course, there is an almost unbearable sadness to this: the tacit acknowledgement that for some people the simple pleasures of human accompaniment have been lost. But evidence suggests that loneliness is a very common social determinant of poor health and that people find substitution in all manner of non-human places (see this or this, for example).
More positively, there is a growing belief that many of us are choosing the consistency, dependability and comforting familiarity of inanimate companions who, in time, will become increasingly aware of us and adapted to our needs, without the fuss or frustration that inevitably comes with the company of people.
Perhaps when we think about the future of physical therapy, we are wrong to imagine that people will always want or need human touch. Perhaps they will turn to therapy robots simply because the human equivalent is too expensive, too far away, or just too human?
Nicholls, D.A. (2017). The end of physiotherapy. London: Routledge.