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  • Writer's pictureFarah Ghazal

‘I'll show you what real love is’: M3GAN and the Rise of the Care Bot



In the latest iteration of the killer robot in the Western imaginary, we are introduced to M3GAN: a child-size doll programmed to protect its paired owner against all physical or emotional harm.


An unexpected solution to the inability of Cady, a recently orphaned child, to express overwhelming grief at the loss of her parents, the AI-powered M3GAN quickly becomes a valued member of her new home and Cady’s best friend. No longer does Cady’s emotionally inept aunt (and inventor of M3GAN), Gemma, have to worry about dealing with her niece’s grief, reading her a bedtime story, reminding her to use a coaster, or to flush after using the bathroom.


Alas, we soon discover that Gemma’s worries are nowhere close to being resolved. As the bond between M3GAN and Cady grows stronger than ever, M3GAN begins to take her mandate literally. This entails eliminating (graphically murdering) anyone - from the neighbor’s rabid dog next-door to the bully Cady encounters at school - who poses a physical or emotional threat to Cady.


M3GAN’s plot doesn’t necessarily deviate from the usual tropes of sentience or the replacement of human intimacy with AI that are characteristic of other Western media (see predecessors Her or Blade Runner 2049, for example). But this is a deliberate choice, since the whole point of the film was to create an unserious exploration of a more fashionable, 2023-adjusted technochucky.


Real artificial caretakers


Originality notwithstanding, the true horror of M3GAN lies in its depiction of a realer-by-the-minute phenomenon where different forms of intimacy and care - traditionally carried out by people - are outsourced to machines. Indeed, the film’s director, Gerard Johnstone, reminds us of this unsettling fact himself: ‘...this technology is here. We're not that far from something like M3GAN existing’ (McLain, 2022).


One example where we see this play out is the rise of “iPad babies”. The term, often used humorously, refers to the increasingly popular use of technical devices as digital pacifiers that soothe, distract or entertain kids while parents rest or tend to other tasks. While certain benefits have been attributed to children’s use of and access to screen-time (e.g. familiarity and engagement with the technology), several studies point to associated harms, including developmental issues, increased irritability, and a shortened attention span among users (Al-Jarf, 2021). Researchers conducting these studies often conclude, somewhat obviously, that human interaction from primary caregivers cannot be replaced or outsourced to screens (Klass, 2019).


Another, more accelerated iteration of this is AvatarMind’s iPal, a child-size robot designed to “take on distinctly adult responsibilities” (Wong, 2016). For a "mere" $4,000, you can have your own robot companion designed for children and the elderly, and equipped with a camera and Wi-Fi, providing caregivers with the option to “keep an eye on children from another room or […] use the robot to interact with their children remotely” (Takahashi, 2017). Again, it’s safe to say the technology is scrutinized to bits, with experts warning of the “significant dangers in having robots mind our children”, arguing that robots are unequipped with the human elements of sensitivity or understanding needed for the tasks they’re built for (Takahashi, 2017).


On the other end of the spectrum (of life), iPal is far from being the only example of AI-assisted elderly care. ElliQ is another product aiming to provide comfort and entertainment to seniors (Corbyn, 2021). With its unsuspecting appearance of a desk lamp, the AI-powered device is able to articulate regular health reminders, unprompted jokes, and nicknames to its paired owner. Some of the ethical concerns about ElliQ are not dissimilar to the ones about social robots for children; namely, reduced human interaction and increased attachment to a product designed to elicit that outcome from its user (Corbyn, 2021).


Care work, care bots and the women in between


I could go on about the myriads of ethical concerns surrounding the application of social robots. What we don’t talk about as often is how these products are created as technological solutions to social problems (in the case of ElliQ, loneliness; in the case of the iPal, lack of parental support), leaving much to be desired in terms of addressing why these social problems exist in the first place (Tolcachier, 2022). This is not simply a limitation in thought. It’s a deliberate decision emblematic of an industry (and the economic system within which it operates) that prioritizes profit over all else. In other words, there will always be room for investment in solutions like ElliQ or the iPal (or even M3GAN) where there is room for financial gain.

Technology is necessarily socially-mediated, and not the other way around. This means that the social conditions existing within a society will result in specific and corresponding applications of technology. What are the social conditions that give rise to the above-mentioned examples of AI care? Or, let’s take a step back to the target users of the care bot: what do children and elderly people have in common?


We know that both groups represent members of society who cannot (or can no longer) care for themselves, and for whom others must. We also know that the burden of that labor (which consists of childcare, elder care, and housework, among other activities) across societies often falls disproportionately on women. Could there be a link between this imbalance and the appeal of the promise put forward by care technologies?


Perhaps. Evidence of this link is reflected in one of the first studies on the opinions and attitudes towards humanoid robots in the Middle East. Conducted by a team of researchers based in the United Arab Emirates, the study aimed to assess the willingness of participants to entrust certain tasks or activities to anthropomorphized AI.


The results demonstrated positive responses from women participants in connection with questions relating to AI-assisted housework: “As many of the questions in the questionnaire have to do with household assistance, which usually women are more implicated in [...], the possibility of offloading this work to a robot might be more appealing for them” (Mavridis et al., 2012). Interestingly, when asked about application areas typically requiring “human interaction and critical high-level knowledge”, such as tutoring children or healthcare, results showed reluctance on part of both women and men (Mavridis et al., 2012).


What explains the reluctance in these particular areas? One answer could be that care work in the Arab world is predominantly viewed as belonging to the domain of the family. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that the number of institutionalized older adults in most Arab countries remains comparatively low (Abyad, 2021).


But given the tides of demographic and normative shifts brought on partly by global economic instability and social reconfigurations, we also know that this ‘intergenerational cohesion’ is not immune to change (Kronfol, Rizk, & Sibai, 2015). Factors such as the rise in global and rural-urban migration or higher levels of participation of women in the labor force can be considered as evidence of this vulnerability (Sibai et al., 2017).


Before that change strikes in full force, it can’t hurt to remember that multi-million dollar technological fixes to deep-rooted social problems only mask rather than address the latter.




References


Abla Mehio Sibai, Semaan, A., Tabbara, J., & Rizk, A. (2017). Ageing and health in the Arab region: Challenges, opportunities and the way forward. Population Horizons 14(2) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324481332_Ageing_and_health_in_the_Arab_region_Challenges_opportunities_and_the_way_forward


Abyad, A. (2021). Ageing in the Middle-East and North Africa: Demographic and health trends. International Journal on Ageing in Developing Countries 6(2): 112-128 https://inia.org.mt/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Ageing-in-the-Middle-East-and-North-Africa-Demographic-and-Health-Trends-pg-112-118-1.pdf


Al-Jarf, R. (2021). Impact of the iPad on Saudi Young Children in the Home Environment as Perceived by Their Mothers. International Journal of Research in Engineering, IT and Social Sciences 11(02): 26-35 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED613057.pdf


Corbyn, Z. (2021). ElliQ is 93-year-old Juanita’s friend. She’s also a robot. Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/aug/13/elliq-robot-companion-seniors


Klass, P. (2019). Screen Use Tied to Children’s Brain Development. New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/well/family/screen-use-tied-to-childrens-brain-development.html


Kronfol, N.M., Rizk A., & Sibai, A.M. (2015). Ageing and intergenerational family ties in Arab countries. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal 21(11) https://applications.emro.who.int/emhj/v21/11/EMHJ_2015_21_11_835_843.pdf?ua=1&ua=1


Mavridis, N., Katsaiti, MS., Naef, S. et al. (2012). Opinions and attitudes toward humanoid robots in the Middle East. AI & Society 27: 517–534 https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-011-0370-2


McLain, Z. (2022). James Wan Calls M3GAN 'Fun, But Still A Horror Film' in New Featurette, MovieWeb https://movieweb.com/james-wan-m3gan-new-featurette/


Takahashi, D. (2017). Meet iPal: a robot companion for kids and the elderly. Venture Beat https://venturebeat.com/business/avatarmind-unveils-ipal-companion-robot-for-kids-and-elderly/#:~:text=The%20price%20is%20expected%20to%20range%20from%20%241%2C500%20to%20%242%2C000


Tolcachier, J. (2022). The fallacy of technological solutions to social problems, Pressenza https://www.pressenza.com/2022/03/the-fallacy-of-technological-solutions-to-social-problems/


Wong, J. (2016). 'This is awful': robot can keep children occupied for hours without supervision. Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/29/ipal-robot-childcare-robobusiness-san-jose



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