Love and Companionship–21st Century Style

Since I got into the reading mode this spring for my courses in bioethics, I thought I’d continue throughout the summer so I don’t lose the “edge.” One book recommended by my prof for the personhood course I took was Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist. I’ve only gotten through the first hundred pages so far, but it’s already got me thinking.

Regarding current day robots (and possibly the future as robots get more and more sophisticated), Turkle wrote in the introduction (10):

A forty-four-year-old woman says, “After all, we never know how another person really feels. People put on a good face. Robots would be safer.” A thirty-year-old man remarks, “I’d rather talk to a robot. Friends can be exhausting. The robot will always be there for me. And whenever I’m done, I can walk away.”

I can relate to these two individuals because I’ve often felt (and thought) the same way. But what does that say about our society today when we view our friendships and relationships as an inconvenience? What will become of me if I should suffer a chronic disease or a debilitating disability? What will happen when I succumb to old age and my body fails me? Will I be abandoned because I’m too much of an inconvenience?

Turkle started her studies of how humans interact with computers and robots in the mid-1970s. At that time, there was a computer program called ELIZA at MIT that was the center of her studies. She noticed that although all the students knew that ELIZA was a limited response software, they kept asking questions and conversing with it as if it was a real person. She also noticed that the students would alter their questions so that ELIZA would be able to respond to them. In other words, they wanted to believe that ELIZA was real.

This trend continued in the 80s and 90s as Turkle observed children with Tamagotchis and Furbies. These little playthings became real to the children to the extent that some of them had difficulty returning the items when the study time (two weeks) was over. It’s not that the children didn’t want to let go of their favorite toys; instead, the children had grown attached to the toys as if they were real pets and they didn’t want to lose these “animals” that they’ve been nurturing and growing.

Many people have suggested using robots as childcare or eldercare proxies, but there are problems with this idea. I’ll write more on that next time. Click here to read the next post in this train of thought.