The robots are coming! The robots are coming!
Wait, what? When we think of robots, we conjure images of everything from 1980s Detroit automobile assembly-line behemoths that looked little like most of our collective associations and imagery of robots, to ASIMO, the famed bipedal humanoid robot debuted at the Expo 2005, which is precisely what most of us imagine when the term is spoken or read. In fact, a robot is simply a machine programmed by a computer to perform a series of tasks; it need not resemble a person in any way!
Rather, most robots on Earth today usually assumes the form most appropriate to their specific machine function. (Again, consider those unmoving, legless robots back in Detroit, still in use to this day…and still fixed in that one spot!) And, robots can be massively large to unbelievably small; nanobots, impossibly tiny robots that are not science fiction but rather science fact, already ex-
ist and have been proposed for many, many uses over diverse fields of endeavor.
Robots are fast becoming ubiquitous in the workplace; now these machine-helpers are finding their way into modern leisure activities. In The recent Wall Street Journal piece by Natasha Khan entitled, “Your Next Robot Encounter: Dinner, Drinks, and a Massage” featured in the WSJ Business section, the author details how “cobots”, or collaborative robots, are now helping at bars, as well as providing massage.
While the labor-intensive and hazard-fraught task of scaling a wall of spirits to find that choice bottle demanded by a knowing patron was gladly assumed by a cobot, and other ‘bots have also been programmed to easily drain a bottle of wine without disturbing the cork, two tasks that are menial and repetitive, to say the least, Kahn’s article also delves into the use of robots to provide medical massage.
Universal Robots, one of the firms contributing technology to most commercially available cobots, releases its programming code as open source; for those unfamiliar with the term, this means that the purchaser, if possessing such skills, can re-program the bot to suit their needs. In contrast, most software is not open source, but already compiled, and sometimes even encrypted, to keep the licensee from altering the programming. Even if not encrypted or complied, unless expressly permitted to do so, programming code cannot be altered, by the terms of the licensing agreement.
AiTreat, affiliated with Nanyang Technological University, has successfully programmed robots to provide Chinese acupressure massage. According to the article, the bots are, “…warmed to 100 degrees Fahrenheit to mimic human hands…” Here’s where a first legitimate concern arises. Chinese acupressure massage is part of a larger meta-system of Chinese Medicine, which acknowledges the existence of “Chi”, or universal energy concentrated in living organisms. It isn’t merely heat, or even infrared radiation; human hands may emit a range of light emissions, and even vibration, but again Chi is none of those things. Chi, itself, is considered something else entirely, thought it may produce those secondary effects cited above.
Massage Chairs already exist. If we want to be technically correct, these are programmed massage robots, already at your corner town hair salon for decades, now. And, from what I’ve heard from clients, such machines cannot compare to a massage performed by a skilled therapist. Even if we were to ignore the existence of “chi”, as it’s presently not scientifically accepted in the Western world, there are other reasons why a massage bot may try, but will always ultimately fail, at simulating a human massage therapist.
Massage Therapy is an act of empathy; better therapists know this and live it every session. It’s an act of the heart, truly, as therapists’ hands can actually affect positive change in a patient. We say this about so many disciplines, but with massage it’s a palpable truth. Massage is an intrinsically human activity, like walking or breathing or eating. Even a robot with advanced AI and not simple IF-THEN logic, cannot compare to a session delivered by a live person. Face it; a robot doesn’t really care about the patient; modern-day robots aren’t even self-aware to any degree.
No doubt, a part of the healing is having a person willful and consciously helping another; this simple act somehow brings both therapist and client an element of healing that can’t be simulated by a bot, much less an uncaring or uninspired Massage Therapist. That caring is somehow, in itself, intrinsically healing, and if absent, makes for a therapist that may be technically proficient, but lacks any real personal massage style or “heart.”
Reading cues about how the patient is responding requires skills that a human will always excel over a robot in. Always. Likewise, a Master Massage Therapist will use her hands, forearms, and elbows, propelled by body weight and gravity, combining knowledge, experience, and intuition, to deliver a session that can transform a person, no exaggeration.
Fine hands that do massage well are often attached to empathic, sensitive individuals; when working on clients, empathic therapists care about the outcome, and put every fibre of their being into the session. Does this matter? I definitely can say my own experience makes it clear that this is significant and worthy for others to seriously consider.
A massage session includes a “Spiritual” component, which again, cannot be quantified. Energy Work, which may be described as framed within a Spiritual, Religious, or even non-religious context, is an attempt to define and delineate this “extra” component of what is happening when a massage is administered. According to such ideas, much like the Asian concept of Chi (and Prana in India), there is an energy that exists within and between living things, much like George Lucas’ idea of “The Force” in Star Wars.
Can a robot possess intuition? Scientists say that our nerves in our stomachs and intestines are part of both our immune system, as well as our conscious perception of how we experience situations and reality. We “get a stomach ache” when stressed or feeling wary; we experience life through not just our analytical mind, but also our senses, as well as our emotions, driven by the endocrine system.
Having decades of experience programming using everything from low-level languages like Microsoft BASIC to highest-level assembly language, the modern, mindfully created PHP and more, I can emphatically state that no machine, at this point, can possibly emulate all that goes into human intuition, or human empathy and caring, and I further propose that such elements are part and parcel of a serious Massage Therapist.
Nor can a skilled therapist’s hand motions and shape and form be easily simulated; shall masterful therapists be concerned that a company may be mining their style for ripping and loading into their new bot line?! Will master therapists have bot programs with their signature style? Believe it or not, these are questions I’ve asked myself for years, having a longstanding interest in AI and robotics.
Without a glove attached to tens of thousands of sensors, and artificial robotic hands of mechanical fineness the world has not yet seen, there’s no way a robot can match a therapist’s soft-yet-hard hands. None. When massage is happening, our hands are molding to the shape they need to be, changing by the minute. So, more tech won’t solve the issue in any real way.
Perhaps Massage Therapists and musicians are two groups of professionals that will be hardest to replicate with robotics; both involve the analytical mind, emotion, experience, and intuition, all somehow connected to the hands that must be more dynamic, flexible, and adaptive than in any other discipline.
Finally, Massage Therapists are often underpaid and overworked. As small spas fell to megalithic chains, and therapists often took a steep reduction in pay, this underrepresented group just had to stand tall and bear it. Massage Therapists do not have worker’s unions; most are female part-timers or contractors and do not receive health benefits (ironically, as LMTs are health care professionals), nor other often unappreciated “perks” of almost any other occupation. Many do no possess other skills or advanced degrees, and a diploma from a Massage trade school, as well as their State License, is what keeps them, and their children, alive.
Of course, these large chain owners would likely love to replace their frail human workers who get sprained wrists all the time and have their daughter’s dance recitals and Girl Scouts meetings to attend with reliable bots that are never tardy or call out sick, only rust or get dusty, nothing some paint or a damp towel can’t remedy. Expect a gradual social conditioning to help us accept robots taking our jobs; cobots will be “cool”; human-provided services will be tagged “awkward.” and something to “AVOID”.
True, maybe there is a moment of awkwardness when a Massage Therapist greets a client, but this just because we are all just human beings playing our roles, healthily respecting one another’s boundaries and personhood. Yes; being thrown into a situation where a therapist is helping someone with a longstanding injury can be a lot, emotionally, but it wouldn’t make sense any other way. That awkwardness is part of being human; I’d feel weird going to an LMT that isn’t respectful of my boundaries, or has no boundaries of their own. Assertiveness is key in life, and a big part of assertiveness is not only maintaining one’s own boundaries, but also respecting the boundaries of others, as well.
Eventually, we all must think about whether legal protections must be drafted to shield professionals from encroaching robotics in the workplace. Massage Therapists, in most states, must possess a license, as well as CPR and First Aid training. Of course, robots will have none of these credentials, just the (rather simple) programming included in their logic and memory. Even future massage robots with robust AI and more articulated hands will not truly be an equivalent to human Massage Therapists. Chances are, massage robots will complete in the already-crowded massage therapist market presently consisting solely of human therapists.
Massage Associations, including ABMP, AMTA, and others, must advocate now to protect the rights of Massage Therapists, a group of skilled, schooled, and tested workers, so that a “massage” may only be performed by a Massage Therapist, and their valued skill remains perceived as such: Something that is an intrinsically human social healing activity, done by humans, and for humans*. *as well as other living beings, of course
Authored by D Alban, (C) Dee Alban, 2018