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’re Pretty Much All Tripping, All the Time


Watch Beau Lotto’s talk above on optical illusions and how information can differ depending on perception.

Written by Ben Thomas

The year was 1943, and the Pentagon had a problem. They’d poured millions of dollars into a new voice encryption system — dubbed the “X System” — but no one was certain how secure it was. So the top brass called in Claude Shannon to analyze their code and — if all went well — to prove that it was mathematically unbreakable.

Shannon was a new breed of mathematician: A specialist in what’s known today as information theory. To Shannon and his fellow theorists, information was something separate from the letters, numbers and facts it represented. Instead, it was something more abstract; more mathematical: in a word, it wasnon-redundancy.

As Beau Lotto explains in his presentation, we’re hallucinating reality all the time — but we only take notice when our hallucinations fail to make accurate predictions.— Ben Thomas

Take, for example, the sequence of letters spelling out “Let’s crack the codes.” It’s got a high level of redundancy — not all its letters are essential for getting its message across. As long as you’ve got some practice reading English, you can look at a shorter, less-redundant sequence like “Lt’s crck th cdes” and fill in the missing sounds. Along the same lines, Hebrew and Arabic speakers can read the vowel-free written forms of their languages just fine. Our brains are surprisingly talented at picking up patterns, filling in blanks, and ignoring redundant data — only when we’re uncertain about how to fill in a blank does information become… well, informative.

Shannon’s non-redundancy idea isn’t just handy for cracking codes, though — today, it’s responsible for most of what you see on the Internet. JPEG image compression, for instance, throws out most of an image’s data, and we rarely notice anything’s missing – our brains’ visual system smooths out the rough spots. Same goes for MP3 compression, and for the Flash video encoding used on YouTube. Ever since Shannon’s day, information theorists have been refining their techniques, drilling closer and closer to the bare minimum of information required to convince us we’re not missing anything. (You might say those ancient Hebrew and Arabic scribes were a few thousand years ahead of their time.)

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Data compression isn’t just digital, either — in fact, it’s hardwired into our brains, from the neurons up. As Beau Lotto shows us in his TEDTalk above, every color we perceive is dependent on its context: What other colors surround it? Is it in light or in shadow? How’s the light tinted? And what’s true for light holds true for sound, too — as I explain in this article, your brain gets so pumped up about rhythm that it actually hallucinates missing beats. Oh, and if you’re in the mood for something extra weird today, check out Oliver Sacks’ TEDTalk on Charles Bonnet syndrome — a brain disorder that makes people hallucinate vivid scenes from tiny stray nerve signals.

In light of all this, it’s hard to escape the inventor Ray Kurzweil’sconclusion: “We don’t actually see things [at all]; we hallucinate them in detail from low-resolution cues.” As Beau Lotto explains in his presentation, we’re hallucinating reality all the time — but we only take notice when our hallucinations fail to make accurate predictions; when we think we’re certain of something that’s actually not so certain, and our brains have to hunt down new information in order to make better predictions.

Claude Shannon once said, “Information is the resolution of uncertainty.” The more certain we are in our hallucinations, the less information we think we need — and the less open to new information we become. Beau Lotto finishes his talk on a similar note. “Only through uncertainty,” he says, “is there potential for understanding.”

Luckily for the Allies in World War II, Shannon had just the right kind of understanding for the job. After proving the Pentagon’s X System mathematically uncrackable, he helped lay the groundwork for the next generation of military codes. His most enduring legacy, though, isn’t the codes he created, but the idea behind them: Only in uncertainty do we realize information’s value.

BIL Conference: A Casual Convention of People Who Want To Change The World

Whether you have seen the fascinating and often mind expanding videos posted online, or have been lucky enough to go in person, you probably know about TED.  If you are like me (incredibly interested in technology but not really willing to spend thousands of dollars to go to a conference), check out TED’s cooler-yet-nerdier little brother BIL on the Queen Mary March 2-4th in Long Beach, CA.

BILder’s (as we like to call them) come from all around the world to share ideas, give talks, perform live music, teach classes, network, brainstorm ways to fix the world…whatever! That’s the beauty of BIL, what it is and what it will become is completely up to the BILders themselves – theres no concrete agenda.  It is what you make it.

It's kind of like this

Last year was my first BIL experience, and I can honestly say it set the tone for the rest of my year in the most positive way possible.  I met BIL co-founders Simone Syed and Reichart Von Wolfsheild when I hosted the after-party for the Los Angeles premiere of Transcendent Man – Ray Kurzweil‘s feature documentary about the Technological Singularity. I was demoing Ancient Lasers tracks for the singularity folks that night and they asked me if I wanted to play at BIL.

Once there I met some of the most fascinating people I have ever been graced to know.  I spend alot of time around people that don’t really share the same interests as me in my daily life, so it was so refreshing to hear phrases like “machine learning”, “brain hacking”, and “nanobot foglets” being thrown around in casual conversation. I got to meet Burning Man guru John Halcyon, Life extension author Aubrey De Grey, lifestyle blogger extraordinaire Judd Weiss, the folks from the Singularity University…The list goes on.

Aubrey de Grey Speaking at BIL 2011

After BIL, we all kept in touch and I personally know more than a couple new startups and other projects that were born from the conference and the connections it facilitated.  Its incredible to think about how much has happened since last year and how many new friends I made.

This year Ancient Lasers is performing with special guest Max Lugavere from Current TV Saturday, March 3rd at 8pm.  Jimmy Delshad, the mayor of Beverly Hills, life extensionist author Aubrey de Grey, CEO of Virgin Galactic George Whitesides, XCOR co-founder Doug Jones, and many many more.

BIL 2012

I highly recommend coming to check it out, I promise you wont leave empty-headed.