Making Friends We Never Talk To: The Dangerous Social Effects Of Robotics

Sherry Turkle was recently interviewed by NPR on the podcast “Do We Need Humans?” with other fellow TED speakers.  What struck me as fascinating about this podcast is that she touches on a subject all of us are aware of but rarely talk about: Technology and relationships. More importantly, the social effects of technology. How is technology making us feel connected to each other, and is this a good thing?

baby seal
Wisdom falls on deaf ears: An elderly woman talks to a robotic baby seal for comfort.

Sherry begins by explaining something she saw one day that changed everything she believed. She was watching an elderly patient at a hospital interacting with a robot. It looked like a baby harp seal, and it had big, cute eyelashes. It responded to her language, and cheered her up. It comforted her. The older woman had lost a child, which could explain her longing for something to hold again. It made her feel understood. Sherry couldn’t believe how well she was responding to this robot, and realized the possibilities of this robot’s application.

“I felt profoundly depressed.  This was a tremendous emotional turning point in my research,” says Sherry.  She is now very worried about where this is all headed, and during her TED talk “Connected, but Alone?” she described it best:

“I felt myself at the cold, dark center of a perfect storm, in which we expect more from a technology relationship than we expect from each other.  I believe it is because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable.  We are lonely, but afraid of intimacy.  We are designing social networks that help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control.  But we aren’t comfortable, and we aren’t in control. We are cheering on this emotional connection to a machine, but why are we outsourcing what defines us as people?”

When Sherry gave her TED talk the year before, however, it was like a public confessional – because the year before, she told us how amazing robots will become.

So what changed her mind?

“I have interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people about their plugged in lives.  These little devices are so psychologically powerful, they not only change what we do, they change what we are.  Some of the things we do with our devices are things we would have found odd only a few years ago.  People text during company board room meetings.  People have talked about the important skill of eye contact while you are texting.  We even text at funerals.  We remove ourselves from our grief and our revery, and go into our phones. Why does this matter? Because I think we are setting ourselves up for trouble, not only in how we relate to each other, but how we relate with ourselves.  People want to be  everywhere at the same time.  The thing that matters most to people is control of where they put their attention.”

couples texting in person
So close, yet so far away.

But what if someone is so lonely, they must resort to a device to help them feel better?  Certainly there are people who would otherwise be completely isolated from the outside world without technology.  Sherry understands that there are inherent benefits to these technologies, but in the future, why would we want to do that to ourselves?  Why would we intentionally construct false relationships?

When we construct robots, we are changing ourselves.  We must realize the needs we are serving and become aware of what these needs are.  Sherry wants to hear a more articulated conversation about these human needs.  “I always hear TED talks that talk about this and always end with people saying ‘we will become more human’ if we let these robots advance.  I’m not so sure.  Why do we want that old woman talking to a robot?  She deserves to have people around, and we need to hear the stories of her life to learn from her.”

“Technology is making the bid to redefine human connection.  How we care for each other and ourselves.  How we determine our values and our direction.  We have every opportunity ahead of us, and we have everything we need to start – each other.  We have the greatest chance of success if we recognize our vulnerability; that we listen when technology says it will take something complicated and make it simpler.  Our fantasies are costing us, and we need to find ways that technology can lead us back to our own lives and bodies.  Lets talk about how we can use digital technology, the technology of our dreams, to make this life a life we can love.”

We must find a balance between our technologic and the personal worlds as the lines increasingly blur. Social media profiles still leave much to the imagination, yet can provide more instantaneous information about a person than an average 5 minutes of small talk. Google Glass — which allows one to share videos, text, make calls and browse the web through the user’s eye — is an emerging technology that may prove beneficial in establishing the physical and internet-based demarcations … by completely eliminating those boundaries and turning an individual into a breathing, living embodiment of the internet. You could say we are becoming the internet. Or the internet is becoming us. Whichever you choose, there is a new age of interaction upon us, and we most certainly will have our share of growing pains. Perhaps some new device like Google Glass will help people learn to truly see through each other’s eyes…But most likely, you’ll just use it to watch the Lakers game during your next dinner date.

Do you think there are more pros or cons to social media? SHARE BELOW


About Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle studies how technology is shaping our modern relationships with others, with ourselves, with it. Described as the “Margaret Mead of digital culture,” Turkle is currently focusing on the world of social media and sociable robots. In her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle argues that the social media we encounter on a daily basis are confronting us with a moment of temptation.

Drawn by the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy, we confuse postings and online sharing with authentic communication. We are drawn to sacrifice conversation for mere connection. But Turkle suggests that digital technology is still in its infancy and there is ample time for us to reshape how we build it and use it. She is a professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT and the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.

We Will Either Live Forever or Be Killed By Robots In…”The Singularity”

We are living during a very important time. It is a time in which time itself seems to be speeding up. It is also a time in which the prospect of being able to prevent our own death is becoming feasible. Intrigued? You should be – something called The Singularity may render you immortal.

The Map Of The Internet

Early Multi-Cellular Life

At the dawn of life on this planet, evolutionary changes happened slow. Billions of years slow. One microbe took billions of years to evolve the DNA necessary to replicate itself from simple amino acids. But that first copying mechanism, DNA, allowed information to be transmitted that much faster. Then, evolution only took millions of years to create multi-cellular creatures. Good information was kept, and bad information was discarded. The wheel of time continued until evolution presented the planet Earth with a new species – human beings. Except this species was different – this was the first intelligence on the planet.

This is where the evolutionary process of life really began to accelerate. Instead of millions of years to the next paradigm shift, it was only 50,000 years until Man began to talk. And then, only 10,000 to develop agriculture, written language, society, and government. Another 5,000 elapsed, and we had constructed Pyramids, developed theological and monetary systems, and had begun colonizing the planet. This led to the development of Science a few thousand years later. Science, after a few mere centuries, gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, which after only 50 years gave us the Computer Revolution. Notice the trend? Evolution is a feedback loop.

“Moore’s law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware, in which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.”

When Moore made this prediction at CalTech in the 1970’s, computers were the size of buildings. Now one fits in your pocket, and a particle accelerator in CERN is capable of achieving the coldest temperature in the universe and a magnetic field thousands of times more powerful than the Earth’s- all to find the God Particle that allowed the universe to be created. Forty years ago a machine that sized could barely run Pong.

This is only the beginning, however – imagine the things we will achieve with computers the size of red-blood cells floating inside the body. Nanobots will soon be integrating themselves into our biological structure, repairing broken synapses in the brain, cleaning out arteries and creating a virtual-reality interface within your visual cortex. Don’t believe me? Ask Ray Kurzweil, who this year co-founded the Singularity University in Palo Alto with Google and NASA. Their sole mission is to create a human-computer hybrid that will allow us to live forever.

Why a hybrid? Why not simply create a smarter-than-human computer and have it solve all our problems? Because that computer might decide that keeping us humans on Planet Earth would hinder its own progress in evolution – that we pose a threat to its survival. Or, the computer might even convert the entire solar system into a bigger version of itself to solve the problem. In Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”, scientists keep building bigger and bigger computers; while constantly asking the meaning of life. It is not until the very end, when, after the entire universe has been converted into a computer that the final answer is given.

The UN even recently passed a law banning “self-replicating nanobots” to prevent the planet from being covered in a “gray goo” of robotic microbes. This only supports how real this is all becoming. Six years ago, Facebook was being invented. Now, 500 million people have moved parts of their lives “online”, and could not imagine life without it. Ten years ago, cell phones and laptops were only just becoming commonplace within the societal lexicon. Now, having a desktop or even laptop computer is viewed as being a nuisance and hassle. In the next ten years, however, the change will be faster. We know this because it’s been speeding up this entire time.

Every day, more things happen than the day before- because today we have better tools for communicating, working, living, and replicating information than we did yesterday. The move from analog to digital will be almost too gradual to notice, but one thing is certain: Humanity is uploading itself onto the internet, which now appears to have turned Planet Earth into a collective brain; every human being a neuron in the system. This collective brain will soon abandon the mortal problems we face today, but it will face problems on a universal scale. Like how to prevent its collapsing, parent star from dying, how to exist in multiple dimensions, or even how to better allocate intelligence throughout the universe.

Maybe then it will even send out tiny seeds to land on distant planets…just like the amino acids that landed on Earth.