The robots are coming, says Sherry Turkle, and humans are ready.
From Siri’s advice on the iPhone to serious discussions of classrooms populated by robot teachers, we now see personable machines as integral and perhaps preferable parts of our future, according to the Harvard clinical psychologist, who spoke at the AAAS Annual Meeting
“We are now at what I call the robotic moment,” Turkle said, “not because we have built robots worthy of our company, but because we are ready for theirs.”
Increasingly, she suggested, people see robots as an answer to the problems of comfort, conversation and care, and we look to them “for the benefits of simple salvations.”
Turkle has misgivings about this trend, after spending 15 years examining how children, adults and older people interact with robots and personal technology like smart phones. Our relationships with robots may be remaking human values and human connections in ways that we should examine carefully, she said.
Turkle has talked with a student who would trade in her boyfriend for a caring robot, and watched a woman in a nursing home, surrounded by people, turn to a robotic seal for comfort. These “sacred spaces” of love, friendship and questions about how to live life, she said, are now the places where people say robots can perform as well as or better than humans.
People have concluded that robots will be necessary to make up for a lack of suitable teachers and eldercare workers in the future, and in some cases have convinced themselves that robots will be safer and more efficient in these jobs than unreliable, messy, chaotic humans.
Turkle said our desire for caring machines is revealing. “What are we talking about when we talk about robots? We’re talking about our fears of each other, our disappointments with each other, our lack of community, our lack of time. In these conversations, I hear exhaustion, because getting these things back seems beyond us.”
In her research, Turkle found a dramatic shift between the 1980s and 1990s in attitudes toward robots and similar machines. The robots and computer toys of the 1980s seemed to be endowed with human-like intelligence, but not feelings. But when designers began to create machines like the plush toy Furby and the robotic puppy Aibo, that presented themselves as having emotions and interior mental states, “we were toast,” Turkle said.
The newly expressive machines generated powerful feelings of attachment and nurturing in people, she said, “and asking for nurturance turns out to be a killer app.”
Now that people are “robot-ready,” Turkle said, it’s time to discuss why we want to have caring machines in our lives.
Turkle’s research suggests that people have three main “fantasies” about a robot-filled future. They hope that it will be a place where they can direct their attention wherever they want, a place where they will always be heard, and a place where they will never be alone.
“The artificial offers attachment without risk,” she said, “and lends an ear to people who often say that no one is listening to them.”
Sherry Turkle lecturing at the Friday, 15 February 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting. Credit: Atlantic Photography Boston
But in the quest to build these un-mutual friendships with machines, she said, people are forgetting how to have conversations, and how to understand and care for one another across generations.
Instead of assuming that children should hear and can learn from the tales their grandparents tell, for example, people are assuming that a robot companion would be a more likely listener, Turkle suggested. “We are literally building the machines that will allow their stories to fall on deaf ears.”
Children, Turkle said, “need to learn what complex human feelings and human ambivalence look like,” and they are less likely to get those lessons from a doll or a puppy or a teacher that never gets angry, never gets tired and never fails them.