by Thomas Wells
The robots are coming. Even if they don't actually think, they will behave enough like they do to take over most of the cognitive labour humans do, just as fossil-fuel powered machines displaced human muscle power in the 19th and 20th centuries. I've written elsewhere about the kind of changes this new industrial revolution implies for our political and moral economy if we are to master its utopian possibilities and head off its dystopian threats. But here I want to explore some more intimate consequences of robots moving into the household. Robots will not only be able to do our household chores, but care work, performing the labours of love without ever loving. I foresee two distinct tendencies. First, the attenuation of inter-human intimacy as we have less need of each other. Second, the attractiveness of robots as intimate companions.
Robots will allow us to economise on love
Robots are smartish machines that will soon be able to perform complicated but mundane tasks. They will be, relative to humans, low maintenance, reliable, and tireless. If they cost the same as cars, which doesn't seem implausible, most people will be able to afford at least one. That would effectively provide everyone with command over a full-time personal servant (actually more than full-time since they presumably won't need to sleep). Imagine how much easier life will be with someone else to do all the household chores (an incremental improvement on dishwashers and vacuum cleaners) and also the household care work like potty-training children (a revolutionary improvement). But also, imagine how this may disrupt the political-economy of the 'traditional' household and our dependency on love.
As feminist economists have long pointed out, households are factories in function and corporations in identity. They are factories because they apply human labour and tools to convert inputs like groceries, nappies, houses, etc. into things worth having, like meals, children, homes, etc. They are corporations because they are unified economic units, separated from the individualistic competitive market that operates outside its walls. The individuals who make up a household, like the employees of any firm, are supposed to work together as colleagues to advance the success and prosperity of the corporate 'family' as a whole, rather than to advance their own individual material interests as actors in a market would. Organising production outside of the market in this way makes economic sense in many circumstances, and for the same reasons we have business firms. Using the market comes with transaction costs associated with establishing trust and quality assurance between self-regarding strangers.