Care robotics is first and foremost a political reality. The vision of robots solving the “healthcare challenge” (Ford 2015, 145ff) has been especially successful in policymakers’ meeting rooms and documents around the globe. A prominent example is Japan, where the notion that (humanoid) robots are already caring for people due to demographic pressures and cultural affinities is in fact still a heavily subsidized political fiction (Wagner 2013). Similarly, those looking for the “robot revolution” in European care homes and hospitals will still find themselves searching in vain. Nevertheless, care robotics has become an arena of political interest that is not only publicly debated (European Commission 2015a) but also heavily researched and funded (European Commission 2016a, 2017). This is a rather recent phenomenon. A mere 20 years ago, almost nobody talked about this vision, let alone invested public money in it. Neither elderly care nor robotics featured in the EU’s work programs and policy agendas. Since then, it has gradually established itself on the European stage as the contingent product of a range of technological, social, and, especially, political processes (for a more extensive sociological analysis of this, see Lipp 2019).
Hence, a critique of care robotics should not take the link between robots and elderly care for granted but rather investigate how it could become a political reality in the first place. Therefore, we ask: What are the discursive logics of care robotics and how have they shaped our idea of what care robots are and what they are for? To answer this question, we follow Michel Foucault’s genealogical “method” (Foucault 1997a, b). This perspective does not enquire into the rationality of a given phenomenon, e.g., by asking “Is care robotics a rational response to demographic change?” Rather, it looks at how a given discourse constructs a certain phenomenon as rational. Hence, investigating discursive “logics” of care robotics means asking: Under what conditions and given which kinds of assumptions could the vision of robots in care become plausible. To use Foucault’s language, how has this discourse been able to talk about it as a matter of course?
We will do this by analyzing three prominent themes of recent European innovation policies, which, in our view, have rendered the vision of care robotics a political possibility: the silver economy, active and healthy ageing, and independent living. While these phenomena are not entirely discrete, we will take each of them as an opportunity to enquire into the way care and robotics have been rendered compatible.
The silver economy
In industrial societies, old age has for the most part been framed as a problem of productivity. In this context, elderly people fall “out of the field of capacity” (Foucault 2003, 244), because they are not deemed fit or productive enough for industrial labor. As a result, an ageing population has mostly been seen in deficient and alarmist terms, i.e., as “a rapidly growing population of needy, relatively affluent persons whose collective dependence is straining the economies of Western industrialized nations” (Katz 1992, 203). These ageist stereotypes persist with terms like the “ageing tsunami” (Barusch 2013), setting the tone for how elderly people are perceived within the present socio-economic order.
Yet more recent discourses of European innovation policy provide a stark contrast to those “alarmist” accounts described by Katz. European initiatives subscribe to a “positive vision on ageing” (EIP on AHA 2011). Following the World Health Organization’s concept of “Active Ageing,” demographic change is seen as “one of humanity’s greatest triumphs” (WHO 2002, 6). Furthermore, the European Commission has urged member states to view ageing as an opportunity to grow a “Silver Economy” (EC 2015b, 8) instead of as a hindrance to growth. Here, health managers, engineers, tech businesses, and policymakers imagine that an increasing number of elderly people will create a new “silver” market of consumers, which new industries must cater to. Hence, according to this logic, the elderly population should not be primarily perceived as “unproductive” or “dependent” but rather as a new group of consumers and users of assistive technology. Specifically, the affluent, fit, and “young old” adults are heralded as the new archetype of old age (Neilson 2006). In turn, this excludes old people who do not conform to such bio-political ideals of fitness and spending power. It also reduces ageing to needs and experiences that can be satisfied through consumption and a logic of care provided through market relations (Mol 2008).
In this context, robotic innovation promises “to transform lives and work practices, raise efficiency and safety levels, provide enhanced levels of service and create jobs” (SPARC 2013). This general promise has mainly been derived from the application of robotics in industrial contexts (ibid., 15), where, in the past decades, production has increasingly been automated. What is surprising here is the transfer of this promise to elderly care—an area that is in no way similar to robots’ traditional domains and where robots still have to prove that they are a viable solution at all. This is not to say that they cannot be. However, the ease with which this assumption is accepted is problematic. This interconnection can only work because of a political rationality that assumes that robotic innovations are a solution to demographic change, because it also fits into a certain regime of marketization. The project of care robotics is tightly linked to agendas of competitiveness, economic growth, and industrial policy. Robotics is seen as a vital future market, one in which Europe cannot lag behind. We must understand why these overlapping policy agendas are crucial if we are to grasp why robotics and care seem to fit so neatly together. As a result, ageing has become a topic for the future to be exploited by cunning entrepreneurs and innovative engineers (Adam and Groves 2007: 57ff). At least within the particular context of innovation policy, old age is not tackled in alarmist terms but rather as an occasion for establishing new links between elderly people’s everyday lives and digital consumerism.
Active and healthy ageing
The theme of “active and healthy ageing” within European framework programs has been crucial in enabling the interconnection of robotics and elderly care. Partly, this is due to how the European Commission re-organized its funding policies a decade ago. Especially, the fifth framework program (FP5) introduced a “[n]ew integrated problem-solving approach” that replaced the former science-based approach (European Commission 2016b). This means that the funding agenda is not organized according to specific disciplines anymore but is instead differentiated by key actions “integrating the entire spectrum of activities and disciplines” needed to solve a given societal problem (ibid.). This means that research and development agendas in areas like robotics are increasingly concerned with and shaped by political expectations of usefulness. In this context, the topic of robotics has become intimately connected to the concern of an ageing society.
In the beginning of the 2010s, “active and healthy ageing” (AHA) emerged as an overarching theme further integrating formerly separated work programs on health, ageing, and digital technology. As pointed out above, these developments have been underpinned by a new understanding of ageing. Particularly, active ageing expands what “health” means and broadens the disciplinary scope from a purely (bio)medical point of view to various forms of (social) health sciences. In this context, “active ageing” not only means being physically or mentally well but also being socially included in society. This opens up a new playing field for robotics to assist the elderly in their everyday lives. This is evidenced by the fact that the EU began to view the challenge of advancing AHA “with … [s]ervice robotics within assisted living environments” (EC 2015c, 29) as increasingly urgent. Hence, the biomedical gaze on elderly care and ageing is now being complemented—if not at times displaced—by technical disciplines, such as engineering, computer science, and robotics. Here, the “cross-thematic approach” of active and healthy ageing serves as a new logic that links robotics and elderly care, which can be witnessed in the emergence of further initiatives such as the “Ambient Assisted Living” program.
At the same time, elderly care is an appealing area to test the new paradigm of robotics. Here, the focus on robotic assistance marks an epistemic and technological shift within the discipline. While industrial robotics usually operate in closed factory cages, assistive robots are explicitly intended for lay user interaction. This gives rise to a range of new requirements for robots and, incidentally, new ways of doing robotics, which are often subsumed under terms like “new robotics” (Schaal 2007). This is due to the fact that a setting such as a household is a much less controlled one than a factory production line and, hence, a more chaotic environment. This makes a difference for robot development, because to interact with humans, roboticists must engineer robots as “independent entities that monitor themselves and improve their own behaviors based on learning outcomes in practice” (Matsuzaki and Lindemann 2016, 501). This affords new kinds of technical capabilities, for which the uncontrolled environment of the (care) home provides an appealing—i.e., challenging—testbed.
The demarcation of daily assistance and the interconnection with assistive robotics highlights the value of independent living, which is a prominent feature of care robotics projects. Similar to what we have described in the context of AHA, independent living defines good ageing as “the ability to perform functions related to daily living” (WHO 2002, 13). This not only focuses on the elderly person’s lifeworld and lifestyle (as opposed to their medicalization) but also is embedded within a wider imaginary of how to (re-)organize European healthcare systems. Within the context of EU innovation policy, independent living is positioned as a way of relieving European healthcare systems of their burdens as such systems are increasingly under pressure due to demographic change, limited public funding, and a lack of skilled personnel. Here, the idea is that robots will help by preventing “avoidable/unnecessary hospitalisation” (EIP on AHA 2011, 4), i.e., by assisting elderly people in their home and thus allowing them to live independently for longer. Here, independence is reframed as relative autonomy from and lower utilization of institutionalized care.
The theme of independent living renders care and robotics compatible in two ways: it re-defines care as (de-hospitalized, personalized, temporary) assistance and, at the same time, casts robots as a (de-institutionalizing, disburdening) response. The idea of using robots as an alternative to institutional care dates back to the very beginning of service robotics. As early as the 1980s, robotics pioneer Joseph Engelberger imagined robots “aiding the handicapped and the elderly” (Engelberger 1989, 210). Interestingly, in his book on service robotics, he positioned the use of assistive robots in care vis-à-vis institutionalized forms of care, at a time when the actual application of such machines was still considered a far-off vision.
Here, being assisted by robots in a “robotised private abode” (ibid., 217) is described as a more desirable alternative to the—in his eyes—disastrous conditions in nursing facilities. While Engelberger does not extend his account of institutionalized care, he discusses how robots could be useful to the elderly and how they might even be preferable to human caregivers. This relates to particular tasks, such as “food preparation” or “social interaction”, certain robotic capabilities, such as “dialog” or “grasp”, and more general characteristics of robots that render them desirable, such as the fact that robots do not need “personal time” (ibid., 215) or could sustain the elderly’s “unrelenting loquacity” (ibid., 216). Apart from the condescending tone, these quotes show that the discursive logic of assistive robotics converges with the political rationale of “de-hospitalizing” European healthcare systems. Robotics functions here as a “private” care technology, which renders publicly organized care obsolete.
This leads us back to the question of how exactly care is understood in this discourse. Assistive robotics defines care indirectly in terms of particular assistive tasks or robotic capabilities specialized to perform such tasks. This is not only true for early examples of service robotics but in fact constitutes a central design philosophy in care robotics. To render itself relevant in elderly care, robotics identifies distinct everyday “problems that older people face” (Robinson et al. 2014, 577), which can then supposedly be met using specialized robotic capabilities. Hence, when the innovation policy discourse talks about care in connection with service robots, it is presupposing a particular logic of care (Mol 2008). This is a more or less fixed set of dissectible tasks, which can be carried out at the point of need without the institutionalized infrastructure of hospitals and care homes.