Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Future of Robots

The Chronicle of Higher Ed. has an interview with Sherry Turkle about her most recent book, Alone Together. Turkle's new book is partially about robots but more broadly about the different electronic devices that keep us "turned on" and "plugged in," as well as social networking sites. According to the interviewer, the takeaway of the new book (which I haven't read) seems to be that modern life is exhausting and that these "time-saving machines" suck out our brains and turn us into unsociable husks. I suspect that Turkle's book is actually a bit more nuanced than that, if her previous monographs are any yardstick.

But I was interested in the interviewer's account of the ethnographic work that Turkle and her colleagues have done in documenting the encounters between humans and human-like machines. In particular, robots that are designed to mimic and elicit emotional responses come under specific scrutiny. Is it ethical to allow children to form emotional bonds with machines that will never truly reciprocate them?

One of the things that I find so interesting about these questions is that they demonstrate how the definition of human behavior keeps changing. First, it was that we use tools. Then, once it was discovered that other animals use tools quite well, it was that humans have specific capacities for speech. Then, it was that humans have a particular capacity for intelligence. But once Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess, that changed. Now it's all about emotion. Machines don't care if they've won or lost a chess match, but people do. (Presumably Kasparov did, although he may have laughed all the way to the bank.) But when robots are programmed to feign emotion, and to elicit strong emotional bonds from humans, something seems amiss. I'm not sure that anything is actually amiss--is it really worse to form an emotional bond with a machine, only to discover that it can't reciprocate than it is to form an emotional bond with another person, only to discover that s/he is a sociopath or a narcissist?

But, once again: this isn't new. In a twelfth-century romance, Floire et Blancheflor, the two main characters are in love, but are separated by circumstance and fortune. Blancheflor is shipped away to a faraway court, but Floire is told that she has died. So, in her honor, he erects a tomb, complete with moving, speaking, breathing statues of him and Blancheflor. The statues kiss each other and caress each other, and say to each other, "I love you more than any living thing."

Robots have been a way for humans to work out the definitions of human behavior and the distinctions between human and Other. Those moments of the uncanny, when robots or dolls "come alive," are unsettling because they reveal that there isn't a bright line, just a blurry one.

UPDATE: Alone Together was reviewed in the Sunday NYT Book Review. It makes clear the connection between the two parts of Turkle's book (alluded to in the interview above): how we humanize objects, and how we objectify each other.


Jenji said...

Love this ending: the blurry vs. bright line. Illuminates the persistent interest in the ballet "Coppelia," with the doll as the object of fervid desire as it seemingly comes to life.

Could even posit some current celebs as modern equivalents of the robotic love-statues. TomKat, meet Blancheflor?

E. R. Truitt said...

Not only Coppelia, but the Nutcracker--the toys that come to life!

Jen B said...

I agree that the ending is great - and it conjures for me the film Lars and the Real Girl. I loved how the Girl allows/facilitates a social life for Lars, which he was unable to manage on his own. She helps him become more "human."

E. R. Truitt said...

@ Jen: YES. I was also reminded of Lars and the Real Girl. Also the way that the Terminator (Arnold) ends up sacrificing himself in T2, thus becoming fully human. Sarah Connor, however, is a single-minded killing machine--she's the real Terminator in that film.

Brian said...

And yet, T2 is the example I always come back to of the way a narrative (the Terminator series) can be ruined precisely by becoming more "self-conscious" and "humanized"--in my opinion, as soon as the Terminator got a conscience, all the great generic work of T1 was undone. (And in fact that "humanization" paved the way for Schwarzenegger to become governor.) And it seems like countless other works of popular entertainment have followed this pattern.

E. R. Truitt said...

Brian, I agree. Although I wouldn't necessarily say that T1 is less "humanized" as a film, but its strength is that the Terminator is the perfect machine. Once he becomes a character we can identify with--as a human--or feel sympathy for (as at the end of T2) then the films become basically unbearable.

Hm, I wonder if this is related to the fact that I find RoboCop to be much more compelling before his human memories kick in?

Brian said...

The short story writer George Saunders does great stuff in this general area--more in the reverse direction, humans being deconstructed into machines--software implanted in the brain, etc.--but it's so compelling because Saunders is naturally a comic writer and you get the sense that his original interest is not in cybernetics, etc., but in the way everyday language is corrupted by advertising. I guess he writes grotesque and alarmed fiction about the encroachment of ad-world first on language, then on tissue itself.

E. R. Truitt said...

One of my favorite phrases from Saunders is "Hatred Abatement Breathing." I often practice it.

I think one of the links between Saunders' work and the anxiety about the perceived erosion of distinctions between humans and machines is the fact that humans (at least in the West) are increasingly been seen less like individuals, or even people, and more like "consumers."