Pretty soon, robots could be doing humans’ dirty work. On Wednesday, the New York Times announced that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, alongside a team of scientists, will work to develop robots to perform tasks relating to containing Ebola: spraying decontaminants on items infected with bodily fluids, receiving information from health care personnel in Ebola-ravaged countries, administering medicine to those with the disease, and even disposing of dead bodies. Right now, the robots are struggling to recognize transparent glass objects and use their robotic arms to drive vehicles.
It’s a genius idea to use robots to contain infectious disease. I am not opposed to the scientists’ work, which will undoubtedly save lives. But despite the brilliance of using robots to prevent the spread of Ebola, it’s uncomfortable for me to think about a robot dealing with disease, something that already takes away so much of our humanity.
“One of the first things I heard from medical responders is that one of the bottlenecks is handling bodies,” Robin Murphy, a professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M, is quoted as saying in the Times article. The article notes that families often struggle with the idea that a loved one’s body is being handled by a machine.
Disease has an uncanny way of dispersing people, inspiring an impulse to keep our distance. And though medical professionals should take every precaution to avoid contracting and spreading Ebola, when meditating on how the average person responds to disease, I’ve stumbled across the obvious: We want to stay really, really far away from infection.
I found that out the hard way when I battled a case of head lice in my senior year of high school. At fault was an infected hat in a store in Williamstown, Massachusetts (that godforsaken town!). It’s unbearably uncool to have head lice when you’re 17 years old and applying to college. Lice goes out of fashion in seventh grade, when someone in your class comes down with the parasite and your teacher reassures the entire class that lice like clean, rather than dirty, hair. By the time you’re 17, the lice checks stop—but the lice don’t.
I was diagnosed in math class, by a classmate who was an expert lice-hunter. She delivered the verdict and I screamed and fled, leaving calculus papers strewn in my wake. My mother rushed home from work and combed through my hair with a nitpicker. (Puns ensued.) We dumped every piece of clothing I’d worn in the past five days into the laundry. I ran a vacuum cleaner frantically over my floor to ensure that I’d sucked up each pesky louse. Vegan that I try to be, I had always proclaimed that if I ever got head lice, I’d set the lice free in my backyard rather than kill them with chemicals, but as quickly as you can say “Nix,” I went back on my word and wished every single one of them dead.
The worst part of the whole thing, though, was going to school the next day. A school official pulled me into her office to make sure that I wasn’t still contagious. My classmates stared at me and my messy hair (my mother had chopped off large chunks of it with scissors to make her nitpicking easier) with undisguised horror. They crowded away from me, giving me a table to myself, and pulled the sleeves of their sweaters over their hands whenever they had to come near me. They kept a safe 40-foot distance. The only person who stood by me was my friend Amari, who had just had her hair braided in cornrows and who assured me that she was immune to lice. (If you ever want people to stay away from you, tell them you have lice. I announced to a crowded elevator of obnoxious middle school girls that I had lice; they panicked as though there were a fire and stampeded out, leaving me in blissful, albeit itchy, solitude.)
Disease drives us into panic mode in a way that other disasters—earthquakes, hurricanes, even mass shootings—simply do not. Tornadoes evoke our utmost sympathy, we rally around each other in tragedies like the Sandy Hook massacre – but the moment a pathogen enters the equation we scatter. We want nothing to do with those who are infected. Disease is, well, contagious. Diseases like Ebola demand quarantine, not thousands of bedside visitors. Our desire to not catch a disease overpowers our desire to be compassionate and empathetic. Obviously my experience with lice does not begin to compare with the experience of someone who has a life-threatening and often incurable disease, but it did teach me something about the way that people respond to the contagious: They respond from 40 feet away, in hazmat suits and masks.
Before the current outbreak of Ebola, there were plenty of other diseases, and other people who kept their distance. The Bubonic Plague, for example, which ravaged Europe from 1346 to 1353, prompted widespread persecution of various minorities, including beggars, lepers, Jews, and Gypsies. So desperate were the Europeans to find a cause for their anguish that they exterminated the Jews of Mainz and Cologne. People turned on each other because they didn’t know that Venetian rats were responsible for their anguish, and because they were afraid.
In this day and age, we’re slightly more compassionate toward the diseased. We’re still afraid, though. We still monitor flights from West Africa, cover Ebola on the news twenty-four hours a day, become obsessed with the most recent statistics. We attack government officials and demand that flights be cancelled. We’re allowed to be concerned for our own and others’ safety, but there comes a point at which our concern, and our obsession with keeping the disease and the diseased at bay, becomes unkind—inhumane. There is nothing wrong with our impulse to stay Ebola-free. But there comes a point at which our obsessed concern would be more sensitively manifested as warm and human empathy rather than paranoia. There are people who are suffering in unimaginable ways. Our chances of contracting Ebola are slim at worst. So why don’t we cancel our orders of hazmat suits and exercise some compassion?
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.