Future Shock: How Will We Keep Busy When Robots Do All Our Chores?

Cyborgs folding the laundry and preparing dinner? ‘The future is already here; breathe deep, be creative and don’t panic,’ says Israeli psychologist.

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Moley Robotics' cyborg chef at work.
Moley Robotics' cyborg chef at work.Credit: TheMarker

An especially memorable advertisement from the early 1990s began: “The successful woman comes home from her job, opens the door and surprise – the house is full of smoke.” 

The jingle plays and we see a besuited, coiffed career woman coming home to chaos (and smoke) because her useless husband tried to make dinner for the kids. The message was clear: Don’t trust your husband to do the chores in your absence.

Could technology change that sorry picture? Not the sexism, perhaps. But this time, when our career woman returns home, she is greeted by happy children who ate a meal prepared for them by Genie, a machine that produces nutritious meals in less than a minute, using capsules. The next stage is Moley, the chef robot that can recreate recipes and mimic the precise movements of the great global chefs. After the meal, everyone can go do their thing thanks to SpotMini, the dog-like robot, which will clear the dishes, load the dishwasher and throw out the leftovers.

These products already exist, albeit they cost a mint. And this is just the beginning. Some scientists are predicting that within 25 years, using robots for routine sex will be considered socially normal, the Telegraph advises. (Some think they won’t.) 

Meanwhile, the Internet of Things will adapt your future home to our personal desires and needs, says Lior Akiva, founding partner and CEO at Seebo. Akiva anticipates that like software today deduces our preferences and suggests music videos and movies and so on to us based on our browsing history, thus the smart home will learn the habits and our preferences. 

Replenishing fridge

“The fridge will magically replenish as though by magic and offer us menus and dishes for the week. Security systems will be able detect facial features and our behavior patterns, and warn of a break-in, or a stove left a long time without supervision,” he says enthusiastically. 

According to futurologist Ian Pearson, a consultant to industrial and technology companies, by 2050 skimmers will wash the dishes, clothes will clean themselves and furniture will adjust to our bodies. Our devices will tell us if our pulse is faster than usual or warn of any increase in weight, and even recommend a lipstick shade to match our clothing. Instead of watching TV, we can use virtual reality technology connecting to our nervous system to visit a beach in the Caribbean, for example. We will be able to feel the sun caressing our skin and grains of sand between our toes without ever leaving the house.

White Innovation Genie's food-preparation device.Credit: TheMarker

In some ways, the homes of 2050 will be more like those of 1950 than today’s, Pearson told the Sunday Times. Cables stretching everywhere and massive systems like stereos and televisions will be history. By that year, about 80% of all the homes in North America and Europe will have technologies doing their chores. 

What would the elimination of housework mean? Will the time not spent on cleaning, cooking and laundry really be spent on loftier things? Will the future woman spend more time with the kids, playing and talking about their day? Will she devote more attention to career advancement? Hobbies? Friends? Sport?

One way to possibly gain insight on how lives could change is to look at past examples of disruptive technologies, from the invention of cooking pottery around 11,000 years ago to the invention of the light bulb in the late 19th century and the washing machine in the mid-20th century. They changed the way people lived, radically.

In the late 19th century, few households in America had access to running water, let alone electricity. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, predicted that tomorrow’s housewife wouldn’t be a slave to the home anymore and become more productive outside the home. Today Western households take washing machines and refrigerators for granted. 

Some sociologists saw technology as basic to feminism and the drive behind women’s liberation. From 1965 to date, the amount of American housework has been cut in half, from 32 hours a week to just 18, on average. One upshot was a meteoric increase in women’s participation in the workforce, from 5% in 1900 to 60% in 2013. 

In that time, leisure time also doubled. 

Artificial apple for robot teacher

Orit Godkar.Credit: Maya Carmi-Dror

Here’s another frontier: Education. Children spend long hours in front of screens and expect interactivity, says Seebo’s Lior Akiva. Toys are increasingly being made with internet connections. One of Seebo’s clients is even making a smart backpack that will warn if, for example, the child has geography lesson that day but forgot to pack the appropriate exercise book.

Yet another product is a smart toothbrush that’s like a game but also informs the parents if the child is lousy at brushing. The child gains independence and the parent learns when a crackdown is necessary.

There are bracelet-smartphones for small kids to help parents keep track of them, a Samsung virtual-reality headset so parents can tell a bedtime story from the other side of the world, and so on. Sproutling developed an anklet that monitors a baby’s sleep, can anticipate when it might wake up and even what its mood might be. But do we really need all that stuff? We did fine without them.

Akiva feels resistance to smart devices is like resistance to smartphones – nobody felt a need for one 15 years ago and today, hardly anybody’s without one. He feels confident the smart technologies will assure us of a healthier, richer and safer life. 

One upshot is that children today may know more than their parents did at the same age. But this doesn’t mean the kids know what to do with that information, Orit Godkar, a researcher of gender issues, says. Authority is losing relevance in this day and age, and the model of authority needs replacing, with alterative models based on relations of respect, division of responsibility and sharing, she says.

She also points out that using technology, a parent can know where the child is at any time yet not how the child is feeling at that moment. We have more information today but know less, she says. Merely collecting information is no substitute for spending actual time with the child. 

“Technology can never replace communications between the parents and child,” Godker says. “I believe that if we look deep inside ourselves, we will know it isn’t really enough.”

Of course there is no consensus about whether or not these technological advances are good or bad, and Godker doesn’t trouble to think about it too much – “It won’t change anything. The future is already here. Breathe deep, be creative and don’t panic.” People get anxious about technological change and that anxiety prevents them from dealing with it efficiently. Everybody has to decide where the new technology adds and detracts, she says.

One of the underlying assumptions of Western capitalism seems to be that if we could only overcome all the obstacles in our lives, we would be happier. If we could abolish war, disease, traffic jams, bad hair days and the miraculously growing pile of laundry, we would be happy. Buddhism cavils at such materialism. Meanwhile, we all know that the gratification we get from a promotion at work, or a trip abroad, passes, and will inevitably be replaced by ennui, restlessness or desire for the next thing. (Buddhism says the source of suffering is our constant desire for something.)

Absolute happiness

Psychologists agree that happiness is not an absolute: It depends on the correlation between our expectations and our situation in practice. Capitalism and technology would create more and more products that make us feel good; Buddhism would prefer to stop our mad race after gratification, but that doesn’t mean that it’s anti-technology, says Eitan Bolokan, an expert on Zen philosophy at Tel Aviv University.

“A monk I studied with for years used to go outside the monastery for a few minutes, open his iPhone, check the state of the stock market, smoke a cigarette and come back inside,” Bolokan says. “There are monasteries that were built on the mountain 1,200 years ago but today they have wireless connection and Facebook and there’s no problem with that.”

Still, Buddhism counsels against becoming dependent on technology. 

“A Buddhist won’t give you clear-cut answers about adopting technology, but will induce you to ask how I am with the technology? Do I really need it? Have I become utterly dependent on this application, this device or can I manage without them?” Bolokan says.

While technology spares us the burden of housework, are we losing something on the way? At Zen monasteries in Japan, most of the monks’ days are spent doing physical labor, cleaning and cooking, he says. But according to Zen-Buddhism, there is no hierarchy of the different moments in our lives. If a bowl needs cleaning, don’t grouse, don’t aspire to do it best and fastest in order to get to more exciting things: Just clean it. Be fully into that moment, too. Experience the touch of the bowl, the flow of the water. Profound presence in every moment of our lives enables us to be attentive and achieve compassion towards everything in our path, whether it is pleasant or not, says Bolokan.

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