Living Today Alone Together

This is the last part 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 2.

One of my favorite all-time sci-fi books is Gateway by Frederik Pohl. This book was first published in 1976 and I first read it as a teenager in the 80’s. One of the more interesting concepts in this book was that the main character, Bob Broadhead, takes counsel from a computerized therapist, Sigfrid. I always thought that this was some fantastical dream springing out of the mind of a talented writer. In reality, he was just a good student of human nature and life now imitates art.

In Sherry Turkle’s book, she recounts an experiment she conducted at a nursing home. Turkle brought in several sociable robots, ones that can react and respond to your words and actions. In this case, it was a My Real Baby and she records the experiences of “Jonathan,” a seventy-four year old retired computer technician. After living at the nursing for two years, Jonathan feels isolated and cut-off from the other residents, mainly because he is not sociable and curt to others when they try to reach out to him.

But Jonathan warms up to My Real Baby after a few months and eventually “discusses his life and current problems–mostly loneliness–with the robot.” In fact, when questioned about this, Jonathan replies:

For things about my life that are very private, I would enjoy talking more to a computer … but things that aren’t strictly private, I would enjoy more talking to a person. … Because if the thing is very highly private and very personal, it might be embarrassing to talk about it to another person, and I might be afraid of being ridiculed for it … and it [My Real Baby] wouldn’t criticize me. … Or, let’s say that I wanted to blow off steam. … [I could] express with the computer emotions that I feel I could not express with another person, to a person.

It’s interesting that people are so cautious of being hurt by other people that we would rather talk to a robot which offers nothing more than pre-programmed responses to certain input. Have we done such a poor job of Christ’s command to “love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).

What does this have to do with life issues? Ultimately, life issues all revolve around how we view one another, care for one another, love one another. Do we teach our children that they were created by God for something better than a one-night stand or a hook-up or a “friend with benefits”? Do we reach out to the woman facing an unplanned pregnancy and tell her that she is loved through our words and, more importantly, our actions? Do we look at the person with a disability and treat them as if they were an inconvenience in our lives? Do we ignore the elderly by shuffling them off to nursing homes so we don’t have to care for them ourselves?

In the command to love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:33-35), Christians are told to open themselves to relationship with each other, which can sometimes result in getting hurt by the other person. Turkle clearly makes the connection between the rise in being “connected” with others online with a desire to avoid being hurt which has clear implications to the Christian witness.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m trouble by the thought of artificial life replacing real, living people whether in relationships or for other purposes. Eve was created by God for Adam because no other creature satisfied his need for a relationship with a like being (Genesis 2:18-25). Is this desire to seek robotic or online avatar-based relationships evidence of a yet deeper corruption or rejection of God’s perfect design for all persons?

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.