Sunday, November 22, 2015

Are we “Alone Together”? (Book Synopsis, Part I)

Being the bibliophile I am, I decided to add a 'Recommended Books' page to this blog, where I provide book synopses, summaries, or reviews for the intellectually curious.  What types of books?  Well, a major motif of our time is the relationship between humanity and technology, the mental and the mechanical.  When do mind and media work in harmony, and when don’t they?  When are we in control of our technology, and when aren't we? Naturally, I’ll recommend books that deal with such questions.


(Image from Amazon)

A recent book that impressed me was Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, has spent decades studying Artificial Intelligence (AI) and human-computer interaction, fields that have been dominated by computer scientists and engineers (and men).  However, she focuses not on the technicalities of robots but on the mental health of people who interact with these machines.  In the Intro she states (p 11): “this is not a book about robots.  Rather, it is about how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face.”

Alone Together divides into two parts.  Part I (Chapters 1-7, which I'll summarize here) examines social robots (robots designed to play and communicate with people) and how they affect kids and adults.  For instance, Turkle found that social robots rouse people to become more expressive of their thoughts and feelings.  Kids who played with robotic pets like AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot—basically a robot dog) surprisingly let out all sorts of strong emotions: some kids were tender with AIBO, reacting to its ostensible cuteness; others turned very aggressive, even bullying what they perceived as a mechanical, “generic” creature.  What do these mixed responses to robots tell us about kids?  As a psychologist, Turkle concludes (in Chapter 3, p 62),

“The strong feelings that robots elicit may help children to a better understanding of what is on their minds, but a robot cannot help children find the meaning behind the anger it provokes.  In the best case, behavior with an AIBO could be discussed in a relationship with a therapist.”

(Image from Wikipedia)

She makes a similar observation for adults who played with robots such as PARO (a robotic pet designed for seniors) or My Real Baby (an animatronic infant for teens and adults).  Adults tend to be more skeptical than kids as to whether a robot is alive or conscious; but, like kids, they tend to become emotional and even talkative.  According to Turkle (Chapter 6, p 116),

“When talking to sociable robots, adults, like children, move beyond a psychology of projection to that of engagement … The robots’ special affordance is that they simulate listening, which meets a human vulnerability: people want to be heard.  From there it seems a small step to confide in them.”

PARO the robotic pet
(Image from PARO Photo Gallery)

Turkle analyzes how kids and adults reacted to other robots such as COG (a humanoid) and Kismet (a robot head) as well as to computer programs like ELIZA (a psychotherapeutic computer program that gives generic responses to questions from patients).  In so many cases, people find it easier to divulge personal information to machines rather than to other individuals.

Now there’s nothing wrong with using technology to facilitate self-expression.  (As a writer, I’m all for that—writers, after all, use technologies like keyboards and screens, pens and papers, to help form and disclose thoughts.)  But there’s a problem when people use so-called social robots to substitute for human relationships.  Machines aren’t companions, and Turkle argues the difference is between outer performance vs. interpersonal authenticity:

“Computers ‘understand’ as little as ever about human experience—for example, what it means to envy a sibling or miss a deceased parent.  They do, however, perform understanding better than ever, and we are content to play out part.  After all, our online lives are all about performance.  We perform on social networks and direct the performances of our avatars in virtual worlds.” (Chapter 1, p 26.)

“My Real Baby was marketed as a robot that could teach your child ‘socialization.’  I am skeptical.  I believe that sociable technology will always disappoint because it promises what it cannot deliver.  I promises friendship but can only deliver performances.  Do we really want to be in the business of manufacturing friends that will never be friends?”  (Chapter 5, p 101.)

In sum, computers and robots can mimic emotions, but they are ersatz, not real feelings.  Although people usually know better, they enjoy the simulated pleasure they get from machines.  So what’s the harm if folks feel satisfied enough talking to computers instead of people?

Turkle believes there’s psychological harm over time: intimate bonding gets replaced by instant gratification, and long-term human needs are replaced by short-term conveniences.  She discusses this danger in in Part II of her book, which we’ll look at in the next post.