As a woman lies on a mattress on the floor, a small white machine attached to her outstretched right arm offers the following words:
“I am the Last Moment Robot. I am here to help you and guide you through your last moment on Earth. I am sorry that your family and friends can't be with you right now, but don't be afraid. I am here to comfort you. You are not alone, you are with me. Your family and friends love you very much, they will remember you after you are gone.”
The above is not a part of a work of fiction. It is real and the robot is real. However, (thankfully) this is not a product being marketed by some misguided entrepreneur. It is part of an interview posted by Leslie Katz on Crave. This robot, along with others in the same vein, was created by Dan Chen, an artist. According to Chen, the robot "reveals the cruelty of life, lack of human support/social connections," but also “becomes something that you can trust/depend on. It could give you the 'placebo effect' of comfort."
As I have shown this to colleagues and others in the chaplaincy world, the reaction has (predictably) ranged from disbelief to horror. The unspoken sentiment seems to have been “is this what our world has come to?” The fact that anyone would consider this option, even as a piece of art whose purpose is to elicit strong reactions and this kind of discussion, seems somehow beyond good taste. In a way, pornographic.
So what does the very existence or this robot say about our world and, especially, how we accompany the dying in our culture? I have no idea what Mr. Chen’s thinking was, but what if this really does reflect an attitude in our culture which would, in our cultural heart of hearts, like to hand over the accompanying of the dying to a machine? What if our strong negative reactions are a recognition that Mr. Chen has touched on a truth about who we are corporately and individually that we want to vehemently deny? Is dying touched by Mr. Chen’s robot so different from dying “touched” by ventilators, dialysis machines, and various kinds of tubing and because of those machines, sedated beyond the reach of soothing words? Is dying touched only by hands encased in latex gloves so different than the touch of a robot?.
What this robot does for me is incent me to help provide those dying in our society with, in Ira Byock’s phrase, “the best care possible”. A hall mark of that “best care” is maintaining human contact with the dying person and helping they maintain contact with supports their humanity. Many know about the program called, No One Dies Alone. But there is a lot more to be done both in the hospital where far too many people die out of touch with what has been their community and human touch in their lives; and in the community where we still don’t do enough to accompany family members who accompany their loved ones.