Health-bots and the Rights of Robots (2004)

Will health-bots monitor your caloric intake, warning you when you’ve eaten too much or not exercised enough?  Will a strategically placed health-bot make the toilet smart, giving instant feedback on potential diseases brewing?  

   “Will we use up-to-the-minute information to create the world we want, purchasing health and other products that match the futures we want to create?  For example, will values-oriented consumers buy only products that follow ethical guidelines focused on people (social justice, women’s and labour rights); planet (environment, and future generations); and acceptable profits?

    “And as robots like this get smarter, as artificial intelligence develops, will robots gain legal rights?  Who will represent them?  What type of world will result as we merge with new information and genetic technologies?

   These were just a few of the provocative questions raised by Professor Sohail Inayatullah, a member of the Futures Foundation’s professional advisory board, when he spoke to journalists at a Science Forum on artificial intelligence hosted by UTS with the support of the Department of Industry, Science and Resources.

   “As the web and artificial intelligence develop, we can anticipate health-bots or health coaches, that is, always-on wearable computers,” he said. “They will provide individualised and immediate feedback, letting us know for example our caloric intake or the amount of exercise needed to burn off the pizza we just ate.

   “They will also let us know the make-up of each product we care considering purchasing, helping us to identify allergies, for example.

   “These intelligence computer systems would be reflexive knowledge systems, learning about us and our preferred and not-so-preferred external environment.

   “They will be powerful health coaches provided by your health-care provider, which will not only aid diagnosis but also reinforce pursuit of your chosen health goals.   These expert systems, or electronic personal guides, will tailor the information to your own knowledge level, interest level and learning style, as well as those of your family members, each of whom would have a personal electronic ‘health coach’.   If you are genetically or otherwise inclined to heart disease, your coach will encourage specific preventive measures.

   “This is the health professional on a wrist.

   “What is crucial is that these bots will be customised, immediate and reflexive.”

   Professor Inayatullah argues that in the long run, this means that there will be smarter consumers who will check on research studies and be able to manoeuvre in a world of conflicting data and conflicting paradigms.

   “Smarter and more empowered consumers should make the jobs of health and other professionals easier.  And as smart cards and health bots continue to evolve, their intelligence will certainly reduce doctors’ visits, saving money to the health system but also forcing GPs to reconsider their role in the health system.  GPs and other professionals will need to quickly become net-savvy, seeing it as a way to communicate with patients, especially younger patients raised on the net – the .com generation and the emerging double helix generation.”

   Dr Inayatullah argues that standards are changing swiftly, with consumers shifting their attention upstream — from the functional use of a product to its cost/benefit, from there to the way it confers identity or status on the user, and on to consideration of the type of future that the buyer’s choice of product will create.   For example, he quotes the dramatic shift to ethical investment funds as more and more people recognise the impacts of the investment choices they are making.

   “Bots will be able to reflect these changing standards and provide us with information for our individual and social consumption needs.  Already websites such as help us to determine our footprint on the Earth: provides product information on which to base value-driven buying decisions.”