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.

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