I have been watching Humans on Channel 4, and the potential impact the idea of consumer focused ‘synthetics’, with great interest. If we ignore the storyline, I am really interested on how they would improve, or perhaps harm, the lives of disabled people, especially those of us who employ personal assistants to support us to live independently.
A synthetic would be the first viable alternative to employing personal assistants, and it is indeed an attractive offer. The greatest challenge to employing personal assistants is the interpersonal skills required to manage their emotional responses to this very intimate type of work, which is as much like a marriage as it is a working relationship. Having a synthetic, who can not get upset, bored or annoyed, is a very tempting quality to have, and I would be very interested in road testing one out.
It would need to be the right kind of synthetic, I would prefer a sexy Sam, yes the male one, as opposed to a strict Hilda. And here is where reality creeps in. Assuming I can not afford to purchase Sam as someone on a low income, and I am asking the state to give me one instead of the funding to employ a personal assistant, what criteria and restrictions will be placed on the synthetic? Government ministers would not miss the opportunity to have the ultimate machine to help them in their battle to avoid unnecessary hospital admissions, obesity, diabetes and so on.
Would having synthetics make it too easy for local councils to doll them out like sweets to everyone, regardless of the level of assistance that is required? Could this make people lazy and more dependent than they were before having a synthetic? Will a synthetic follow the orders of it users or will users find themselves slaves to their synthetics, telling them how they should live? Knowing how national and local government works, I think the latter is more likely on the NHS and social care models, where true independent living is only afforded to those who can afford their own synthetics.
I always said I would not consider a support dog, instead of a personal assistant, until they can cook my breakfast and drive my car, when I had one. A synthetic would, on paper, be able to do what my current personal assistants can do, and probably more, but I think after the novelty has worn off, I would be left with a gap in terms of meeting my emotional needs.
Do I really want someone or something that would simply agree with what I say, because they are programmed to, as oppose to having any emotional investment in the subject matter? Will I miss having a real person supporting me, who is able to read and understand my emotions in the context of their own? Would having something I can swear, scream and shout at all day, without any reaction or come back, somehow make me become a crueller person as interpersonal skills become less relevant?
The Humans series is a simple but fascinating story that really challenges the notion of personhood as it has explored the issues and impact in depth, including the impact on social care. I am unsure if synthetics will be the future as it is not as cost effective as progressing other technologies. I know technology has and will always have an important role in the liberation of disabled people, as I have experienced first hand myself, but I think we will never know how, like we will discover with the progression of wearables, like my Apple Watch.
If I was offered a synthetic tomorrow, I am unsure the geek inside me could refuse.