, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 445–454 | Cite as

Robots in aged care: a dystopian future?

  • Robert SparrowEmail author
Original Article


In this paper I describe a future in which persons in advanced old age are cared for entirely by robots and suggest that this would be a dystopia, which we would be well advised to avoid if we can. Paying attention to the objective elements of welfare rather than to people’s happiness reveals the central importance of respect and recognition, which robots cannot provide, to the practice of aged care. A realistic appreciation of the current economics of the aged care sector suggests that the introduction of robots into an aged care setting will most likely threaten rather than enhance these goods. I argue that, as a result, robotics for aged care is likely to transform aged care in accordance with a trajectory that leads towards this dystopian future even when this is not the intention of the engineers involved. While an argument can be made for the use of robots in aged care where the people being cared for have chosen to allow robots in this role, I suggest that overemphasising this possibility risks rendering it a self-fulfilling prophecy, depriving those being cared for of valuable social recognition, and failing to provide respect for older persons by allowing the options available to them to be shaped by the design choices of others.


Ethics Robots Robotics Aged care Society Social robotics 



The research for this paper was supported under the Australian Research Council’s Centres of Excellence funding scheme (Project CE140100012). The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council. I would like to thank Professor Gesa Lindemann and Professor Gregor Fitzi for the invitation to attend the “Going beyond the Laboratory” conference. I’d also like to thank my mother, Linda Sparrow, and Catherine Mills for comments and discussion during the process of drafting this manuscript.


  1. Aristotle (2004) The politics (E. Barker, Trans.). Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  2. Arneson RJ (1999) Human flourishing versus desire satisfaction. Soc Philos Policy 16(1):113–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Borenstein J, Pearson Y (2010) Robot caregivers: harbingers of expanded freedom for all? Ethics Inf Technol 12(3):277–288CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Coeckelbergh M (2012) “How I learned to love the robot”: Capabilities, information technologies, and elderly care. In: Oosterlaken I, van den Hoven J (eds) The capability approach, technology and design. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 77–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Elster J (1985) Sour grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  6. Fraser N (1995) From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a ‘post-socialist’ age. New Left Rev 212:68–93Google Scholar
  7. Griffin J (1986) Well-being. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  8. Hegel GWF (1977) Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  9. Heidegger M (1993) The question concerning technology. In: Basic writings (Rev. and expanded ed). Harper, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  10. Honneth A (1992) Integrity and disrespect: principles of a conception of morality based on the theory of recognition. Polit Theory 20(2):187–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Nozick R (1974) Anarchy, state and Utopia. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  12. Nussbaum MC (2000) Women and human development: the capabilities approach. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Nussbaum MC (2011) Creating capabilities: the human development approach. Harvard University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Parfit D (1984) Reasons and persons. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  15. Parks JA (2010) Lifting the burden of women’s care work: should robots replace the “human touch”? Hypatia 25(1):100–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Rawls J (1971) A theory of justice. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  17. Rice CM (2013) Defending the objective list theory of well-being. Ratio 1(2):196–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Schaeffer C, May T (1999) Care-o-bot-a system for assisting elderly or disabled persons in home environments. In: Buhler C, Knops H (eds) Assistive technology on the threshold of the new millenium. IOS Press, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
  19. Sen A (1999) Development as freedom. Knopf, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Sharkey A (2014) Robots and human dignity: a consideration of the effects of robot care on the dignity of older people. Ethics Inf Technol 16(1):63–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Sorell T, Draper H (2014) Robot carers, ethics, and older people. Ethics Inf Technol 16:183–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Sparrow R (2002) The march of the robot dogs. Ethics Inf Technol 4(4):305–318MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Sparrow R (2004) The turing triage test. Ethics Inf Technol 6(4):203–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Sparrow R (2015) Imposing genetic diversity. Am J Bioeth 15(6):2–10. doi: 10.1080/15265161.2015.1028658 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Sparrow R, Sparrow L (2006) In the hands of machines? The future of aged care. Mind Mach 16:141–161CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Taylor C, Gutmann A (1992) Multiculturalism and “the politics of recognition”. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  27. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013) World population ageing 2013. ST/ESA/SER.A/348Google Scholar
  28. Vallor S (2011) Carebots and caregivers: sustaining the ethical ideal of care in the twenty-first century. Philos Technol 24:251–268CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. van Wynsberghe A (2013) Designing robots for care: care centered value-sensitive design. Sci Eng Ethics 19(2):407–433CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Vincze M, Weiss A, Lammer L, Huber A, Gatterer G (2015) On the discrepancy between present service robots and older persons’ needs. In: 23rd IEEE international symposium on robot and human interactive communication (IEEE RO-MAN 2014), August 25–29, 2014, Edinburgh. Accessed 21 Jan 15
  31. Winner L (1986) The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, and ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, Faculty of ArtsMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

Personalised recommendations