On the seductiveness of social media and robotic machines

Posted: March 4, 2011 in reflections, society
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Our lives have become bold technological experiments, but we need to think hard before letting the computers and robots take over, says Sherry Turkle.

EVERYWHERE we turn, we face unprecedented technological change. On one hand there are the temptations of the sociable robots in the lab and on the horizon, machines that offer themselves as ready – or nearly ready – to talk to us about almost anything. Where once artificial intelligence researchers proposed artefacts that would win us over with their smartness, designers of these latest machines aim to seduce with sociability. Sociable robots press our “Darwinian buttons”: we respond to humanoid objects that make eye contact, track our motion and say our names as “creatures” with intentions, consciousness, even feelings.

Indeed, when an object reaches out and asks us to care for it, we find we not only want to care for it, but want it to care for us in return. Nurturance turns out to be the “killer app” in our relationships with the inanimate. We are vulnerable to new attachments, seduced by machines that ask for our care. They “pretend” to converse, but do not understand what we say. Engrossed by sociable robots, we are alone yet experience a new sense of intimacy.

From another direction, there are the temptations of the new relationships we can have with each other via mobile connectivity – always on and always on us. We now expect the control over our time and emotional resources that texting and messaging provide. We don’t use the “voice minutes” on our phones: we would rather text than talk. Talking comes to seem intrusive, a demand on our “real time”. We turn instead to Facebook, to “friending”, to Twitter, to worlds in which we play avatars – ourselves but not quite ourselves.

In online spaces we discover a surprising truth about identity. When we play an “other” (as an avatar in World of Warcraft, say) we end up playing aspects of ourselves. When we go to places such as Facebook where we think we will simply be ourselves, we end up playing roles, caught up in self-presentation. In our lives of performance, we face confusions. At the end of an evening of avatar-to-avatar chat in a networked game we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We recreate ourselves with new bodies, homes, jobs and romances. We build a Facebook following and wonder to what degree followers are friends. We are together with other people, yet can feel utterly alone.

Teenagers say that when they have a feeling, they turn to online contacts (on their phones, on Facebook) because sharing a feeling has become part of having one. In a world of continual connection, people who are a touch away are there for continual validation. We move from “I have a feeling, I want to make a call” to “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text”. When we use other people in this way, we can get used to seeing them as spare parts, as supports for our too-fragile selves.

So, alone with robots, we feel connected; together with people but not fully relating to them, we feel alone. We are in the still centre of a perfect storm. I call this the “robotic moment”, a technological moment in which we fear our lives with technology are out of control, and we fantasise, paradoxically, that it is technology that will help us re-establish control. Overwhelmed, we have been drawn to technologically mediated connections that seem low-risk, always at hand. If convenience and control continue to be the values we hold uppermost, we will be tempted by sociable robots which, just as slot machines attract a gambler, promise us excitement programmed in, just enough to keep us in the game.

At the robotic moment, we must also worry that we no longer complain about the simplification and reduction of relationships. We start down a path of substitution with the idea that technology provides alternatives that are better than nothing. Then we think that perhaps technology is better than some of the available human connections. Finally, we play with the idea that technology might be better than any human connection. From better than nothing to simply better.

An 11-year-old girl may start out saying that a robot dog might be better than a real one because her father is allergic to dogs. Next, she thinks that a robot dog is better than a real dog because it will “never die”. Then the child may allow herself to muse that a robot dog could be made to stay a cute puppy, more gratifying than any real dog could ever be. From better than nothing to better than anything.

There is a similar progression in the world of connectivity. When lonely and isolated, creating an avatar in Second Life may seem better than nothing. But online, slim, rich and buffed up, you feel you have more opportunities than in the real world. Better than nothing becomes better than something – or better than anything. Not surprisingly, people report feeling let down when they move from virtual to real life.

Sociable robots and online life both suggest the possibility of relationships the way we want them. Just as we can program a made-to-measure robot, we can reinvent ourselves as comely avatars. We can write the Facebook profile that pleases us. We can edit messages until they project the self we want to be.

And we can keep things simple. Our new media are well suited to the rudimentary, and because this is what technology serves up, we reduce our expectations of each other. An impatient high-school senior says to me: “If you really need to reach me, just shoot me a text.” He sounds just like my colleagues on a consulting job who tell me they would rather avoid face-to-face meetings and would prefer to communicate with “real-time texts”.

Our first embrace with sociable robotics is a window onto what we want from technology – and what we will do to accommodate it. We imagine networked life as expansive, but we are as fond of its constraints. We celebrate its “weak ties”, the bonds of acquaintance with people we may never meet, but that does not mean we prosper within them. We often stand depleted in the hype, finding ourselves tied up by the technology that promised to free us up.

Connectivity promises more time, but as smartphones erode boundaries between work and leisure, all the time in the world turns out to be not time enough. Even when not “at work”, we feel on call. Pressed, we want to edit out complexity. Control and simplification in communication means that when it comes to relationships, we end up with reduction and betrayal, asking ourselves simpler questions because we want instant answers on email. We come to a point where we are so smitten by the idea of conversation with computers that we forget what human conversation about human problems is about: human meaning through the first-hand knowledge of the human life cycle, something of which robots will be forever innocent, no matter how “expressive” we make their faces or voices.

Every technology demands we ask whether it expresses our human values – and, in turn, that we ask ourselves what they are. This is a moment of significant choice. We have agreed to a series of experiments on ourselves: robots to mind children and the elderly, technologies that denigrate and deny privacy, seductive simulations that present themselves as real places to live. We deserve better. When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we will have better.

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Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This essay is based on Alone Together (Basic Books), which with The Second Self and Life on the Screen completes her trilogy on digital life

From issue 2795 of New Scientist magazine, page 28-29 – http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20927951.100-beware-the-seductions-of-sociable-machines.html

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