Robot Companions

This is part 2 of my thoughts from reading Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, a licensed clinical psychologist. Click here to read part 1.

On my Facebook timeline, I’ve often shared with friends videos of the advances in robotics with a warning: “Rise of the machines.” I do this because there is a fear that artificial intelligence will someday catch up with and overtake human intelligence. Although this has been fodder for science fiction writers for decades, we’re apparently moving closer to that goal. See this video from RoboCup 2012 featuring “kid size” robots playing soccer.

Turkle writes of the children in her studies as seeing robots as their true companions, ones from whom the children can learn. The problem with this, according to Turkle is that “the first thing missing if you take a robot as a companion is alterity, the ability to see the world through the eyes of another. Without alterity, there can be no empathy.”(55)

In the Terminator movies, it is the cyborg that learns empathy, but in reality, it is the human that learns to adjust to the robot. In fact, we often project what we want or need onto the robots as if they were real and could really react. So children who need a parent to care for them at home wonder if robots would be good at being babysitters and the elderly in nursing homes who yearn for companionship wonder if robot caretakers would be better than human caregivers. As Turkle writes, “What we ask of robots shows us what we need.”(87)

In fact, even those who are aware they are working with a robot often forget that they’re not talking with human. Turkle recounts an encounter between Rich with Kismet (at the MIT artificial intelligence lab). Rich tries to leave the room–i.e. leave Kismet–several times but the motions and sounds that Kismet makes and emits cause Rich to return to Kismet time and again. Her study video of the encounter ends with Rich lost in a “moment of more,” a moment when one is not quite sure who is taking the lead in this dance between humans and robots.(127-9)  Turkle writes (129):

In this encounter we see how complicity gratifies by offering a fantasy of near communion. As our relationships with robots intensify, we move from wonder at what we have made to the idea that we have made something that will care for us and, beyond that, be fond of us. And then, there is something else: a wish to come ever closer to our creations–to be somehow enlivened by them. A robotic body meets our physicality with its own. A robot’s gaze, face, and voice, allow us to imagine a meeting of the minds.

In a world with over 7 billion people, it is quite a commentary on modern lifestyles that we need to seek companionship from a mechanical being with limited responses that we interpret according to our wants and needs. What does this say about how we’ve loved our neighbors as ourselves; or haven’t as the case appears to be.

To see Kismet in action, watch this video.

In case you do have a fear of a robotic uprising like I do, here is a video with some tips on how to survive one.

Click here to read the last part of this series.

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