Friendship Does Not Compute
July 29, 2012
There are two stories being told in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, the new book by psychologist and M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle. The first is the cautionary tale suggested by the book’s title; the second is Turkle’s evolution from exuberant optimist about humanity’s digital life into the teller of that cautionary tale.
“Thirty years ago,” Turkle says in the opening words of Alone Together, “when I joined the faculty at M.I.T. to study computer culture, the world retained a certain innocence” — innocence, that is, about computers and our life with and on them. It was a world in which, she says, computer hobbyists tinkered, played simple electronic games, and mused about the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. “I witnessed a moment,” she says, “when we were confronted with machines that invited us to think differently about human thought, memory, and understanding.”
During this time, when she wrote her first technology book, The Second Self (1984), Turkle was, by her own account, “full of hope and optimism” about the emerging field of personal computing. Though she had some concerns about how attached people could become to their new interactive digital technologies, her main interest was in “how evocative computers fostered new reflection about the self.” A decade later, Turkle was beginning to observe that some people “found online life more satisfying than what some derisively called ‘RL,’ that is, real life.” Nonetheless, she feels that her book Life on the Screen (1995) “offered, on balance, a positive view of new opportunities for exploring identity online.”
But in Alone Together, Turkle’s earlier optimism about the transformative power of digital technologies has faded. Thus the book inevitably reads also as a story about the loss of that initial state of innocence she describes in the opening words. “Everything that deceives may be said to enchant,” reads one of the book’s epigraphs, from the Republic. It is curious that Turkle, in describing her previous work at the outset of this new book, does not wonder how Plato’s observation might bear on her own perception of the ostensibly Edenic state of the world of computer users at its dawn. Is it really the world itself that has lost its innocence since then?
As it happens, the perplexing human tendency to ascribe aspects of our own perception to the world outside us is one of the central worries of the book. The first half of Alone Togetherfocuses on our interaction with “social robots,” which, though no more intelligent or emotional than any other computer, are designed to make us feel and act toward them as if they were more than mere devices. In contrast to the old popular depiction of robots as servants, the primary focus in social and personal robotics — a field pioneered at Turkle’s own M.I.T. — is on ones that will be our friends. These might take the form of interactive toys to be nurtured by children, or of semi-autonomous, talkative, highly responsive bots that might, at least in the fantasies of the more starry-eyed futurists, someday nurture us.
Turkle has studied these robots and their interactions with test subjects at length, and she raises disturbing questions about the increasingly human-like qualities and interactive capacities of these devices. One anecdote Turkle relates from her research is particularly telling. “Edna,” a woman in her eighties, lives alone in the house where she had raised her family. When her granddaughter Gail and two-year-old great-granddaughter Amy come to visit, Turkle’s research team brings along a My Real Baby — a robotic doll introduced by Hasbro in 2000 and marketed as “the most real, dynamic baby doll available for young girls to take care of and nurture.”
Edna initially focuses on Amy, but becomes captivated when she is introduced to the My Real Baby. She speaks to the robot as one would to a real baby, nestling it in her arms when it starts to “cry,” offering it a bottle, speaking baby-talk to it, and lavishing affection on it. She devotes the better part of an hour to “caring” for the robot while ignoring Amy’s attempts to engage her attention, even telling Amy, “Shush, the baby’s sleeping” when Amy offers her great-grandmother a cookie. Though elderly, Edna does not suffer from dementia, fully understands that the My Real Baby is “only a mechanical thing,” and soon becomes uneasy and embarrassed at having so misdirected her attention.
This anecdote paints a picture of a broadly plausible future of human interactions with robots. And there is a logic to this future that matches up well with a certain popular self-understanding: if we ourselves are, as so many claim, just very complex machines, then perhaps if we make machines of sufficient complexity they could be more or less like us. They could attend to some of the more time-consuming, seemingly tedious tasks to which we now devote so much human effort — such as caring for the elderly and infirm, conducting basic talk therapy with patients, and providing interactive attention to children. Indeed, Turkle sees us poised at a “robotic moment” — a point in technological history when people are increasingly “willing to seriously consider robots not only as pets but as potential friends, confidants, and even romantic partners.”
Beyond this prognostication, the anecdote of Edna helps to bring into relief the features that might be generally characteristic (if usually in less pronounced forms) of human interaction with social robots. Even now — when these robots are relatively primitive, slow, and dumb compared to what they might someday be — we are already prone to become enchanted with the seemingly personal capacities of robots, and so might easily become used to the idea that they might serve not only our practical but our emotional needs as well.
But these tendencies, says Turkle, are deeply problematic; robotic companionship cannot offer alterity—“the ability to see the world through the eyes of another” — an element crucial to genuine relationships and a prerequisite to true empathy. Not only are robots clearly incapable of experiencing empathy for human beings, but, more importantly, these “relational artifacts” will present “new possibilities for narcissistic experience.” Narcissism is characterized by an inability to feel empathy towards fellow human beings; instead, other people are “experienced as a part of one’s self, thus in perfect tune with a fragile inner state.” Indeed, Turkle notes, we already speak of narcissists treating others as objects, or as “spare parts” — but robot companions will literally be spare parts, making them perfectly suited for narcissistic relationships. Relationships with robots, which do not demand or cultivate real empathy, threaten to degrade genuine relationships with real people.
Turkle’s study of robotics, however, forms only the first half of her book, and serves in part to provide a contrast to the far more widespread phenomenon explored in the second half: life on the Internet. One points to the other — social robots are both a plausible future path for today’s digital life, and an indicator of certain attitudes and trends of digital life taken to their logical conclusions. Between these two worlds, Turkle argues, there is a “disturbing symmetry: we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.”
The evidence for the latter part of this perplexing insight is amply provided in another recent book that covers essentially the same ground as the second part of Alone Together but takes a less philosophical and more traditional psychological-investigative approach. In Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist and director of the Stanford clinics for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Impulse Control Disorders, offers a clinical but deeply humane study of the psychic damage that results when people allow the boundaries between their virtual and real lives to be effaced. Aboujaoude observes that many of his patients have assumed online personalities that bear little resemblance to themselves. More broadly, he argues that Internet use has come to “interfere with our home lives, our romantic relationships, our careers, our parenting abilities — and our very concept of who we are.”…