Contemplating robot love and our relationship to technology

The snow is falling gently in Boston and on day three of the AAAS meetings I have sore hips from sitting, sore feet from standing and a sore throat from talking (and if I’m honest, a sore head from some nicely fermented grapes that were passed out at the AAAS Kavli Journalism Awards last night).

This morning as I lay awake at 4am cursing my biological alarm clock that remains on UK time, I found myself contemplating some thought-provoking statements by last night’s plenary speaker, Sherry Turkle. Turkle is a Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology and Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Basically, she studies the psychology of human relationships with technology.

Loving Wall-E

Turkle opened her talk by recounting a story where she was being interviewed about social robots – machines that win you over with their social skills rather than their ability to make fast computations. Robots we would want to live with, perhaps even over human partners. The question stemmed from her published account of an interview with an MIT engineering student who was down on love and thought his life could be substantially improved by a caring robot partner. He wanted a companion that he could find comfort in without perhaps some of the complications that arise between two human partners.

The interviewer asked Turkle her opinion on robot love and she replied quite honestly that she thought “people should mate with people”.  Turkle was accused of bigotry and being prejudiced against this new concept of love. She was dumbfounded.

What makes something alive?

Turkle has spent a great deal of time looking at children’s interactions with smart toys, such as Merlin or Furby. Toys such as this have made children re-think the question of what makes something alive.

When I was a child, my understanding of life was garnered from those things closest to me. I was raised on a hobby farm so this was mainly friends and farm animals. I witnessed life and death almost daily. I bottle-fed runt piglets and held sick calves in their last moments of life. I cried and I had deep and meaningful relationships with these other beings. I had a very firm understanding of what made something alive.

But what about children who’s pets are replaced by robotic dogs or who’s dolls are replaced by robotic babies? How is their concept of what is alive skewed by these interactions?

Turkle said that these children describe these toys as “sort of alive”. They, and indeed their parents, strongly believe that a pet that will never die is far superior to a pet that a child will inevitably grieve over one day.

As a mother, I can’t imagine sheltering my child from death. Of course you don’t want to see your child in pain, but surely this is a part of life they must work through. Surely the benefits of deep, interactive and unpredictable relationships with other living things outweigh the pain of losing those relationships?

This was a point that hit home for me. Turkle stated that people are hard wired to nurture what we love as well as love what we nurture. As a result, children will inevitably build attachments to digital and robotic creatures that cry out for our attention – think back to the Tamagotchi era. The downfall, however, is that we mistakenly think that these creatures have feelings for us.

Robot confidantes

Turkle also spoke about a shift she has witnessed over 25 years of looking at youth perceptions of the utility of robotic confidantes. In 1983, Turkle asked a 13 year old boy whether he would be willing to discuss matters of life, love and relationships with a robot. His response was that a robot would be of no help if he wanted to talk about school, sports or relationships. His preference would be to speak to his dad because he may not have all the right answers, but he has made mistakes and it is in these shared imperfections that the boy finds comfort.

Fast forward 25 years and Turkle asks a 15 year old boy whether a robot confidante would be better over his own father. The response is completely different. The boy sees the advantage of the robot as being a repository – a database – of information built from infinite uploads of human experiences. He sees his dad’s imperfection as a drawback. People have become the risk while robots are safe.

Together but alone

However it was Turkle’s phrase “together but alone” that has me lying awake this morning. We’ve  all directly experienced this – either watching or being part of a group of people at a table, each texting or emailing on their phones. At our house we are guilty of sitting on the sofa in the evening once our son is in bed, working away on our laptops. We are together, but alone.

Our ‘friends’ on Facebook can give an illusion of companionship without putting us at risk. I can spy on my high school friends and feel as though I am in touch with their lives, without risking the emotional turmoil that might possibly be caused by picking up the phone and actually speaking to them. Maybe they don’t call me back, because they aren’t as interested in the friendship, or maybe their “status” isn’t as wonderful as their updates on Facebook might imply. Either way, there is a risk that I might need to make an emotional investment.

Has technology caused us to become emotionally detached or have societal changes forced us to seek connections through technology? I ask this question because I remember being warned as a laboratory instructor that I should never touch the students. So, when a young woman came in to see me in tears at the loss of a parent and the fear of academic failure, I had to sit back and consciously resist the urge to comfort her with a hug or even a touch on the shoulder. I had to sit and be a spectator to her grief without using the most innate tools I have in expressing understanding and comfort. Is it possible then that these overcompensations society has made have forged the path for our transition to seeking comfort in technology?

We don’t have all the answers obviously, but I think it’s important to have the discussion. I, personally, will be making a more conscious effort to be together…together.

I highly recommend watching Turkle’s TED talk if you’re interested in learning more about this.

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