Lead: Professor Mitali Thakor
Student Research Associate: Leila Henry, Sarah Asiedu

The demand for service robots has increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the primary sites for development of such robots is in eldercare nursing. Eldercare robots seem to promise a continuation of care otherwise not possible under broken medical infrastructures in the US. These robots purport to stave off loneliness, provide a watchful eye to alert family members and emergency medical personnel, and enhance clients’ therapeutic care by engaging memory recall and language skills. This project is based on fieldwork in the U.S. into the design and use of “animate companion” commercial robots in caregiving settings. Recent work in STS has rightly critiqued the use of robots as stopgaps, proxies, or “surrogates” within the labor system of racial capitalism (cf. Atanasoski and Vora 2019; Semel 2021). However, following Casteñeda and Suchman’s (2014) call to imagine other forms of kinmaking through animal-child-robot objects, we consider how animate companionship with carebots might generate new relational configurations marked by co-produced pleasure and humor rather than merely extractive forms of care. Commercial carebots often take other-than-human form, as pet animals or caricatured children. How does the material form of robots matter in supporting the production of a caring, companionate relationship? Approaching caregiving as motivated by curiosity rather than curative ideologies, we suggest that animate companionship provided by robotic pets and children opens up opportunities for human-nonhuman intimacies that rely on artificiality, intimacies that are strategically possible only because of their performative and contrived material forms.

Related resources:

Robot Pets as “Serious Toys” – Activating Social and Emotional Experiences of Elderly People (Ihamaki and Heljakka)

The New Yorker: What Robots Can and Can’t Do for the Old and Lonely

Nature: Robots rise to meet the challenge of caring for old people

Verywell Mind: How Robotic Pets Are Helping Older Adults Facing Dementia and Isolation

Psychology Today: Therapy Dogs or Robots for Nursing Home Residents?

Podcast series: CareWalks