Romancing Robots May Not Be a Great Idea After All: Book Review

The cover jacket of "Alone Together: Why we Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other" by Sherry Turkle. Source: Basic Books via Bloomberg

In Davos a few years ago, I moderated a session for Rodney Brooks, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticist.

Brooks drew a distinction between our fantasy idea of robots -- lifelike creatures that interact with humans -- and the reality of their use in factory automation and the like. His entire focus, he said, was on the fantasy side; he really didn’t care a whit about factory automation.

Brooks’s MIT colleague, social scientist Sherry Turkle, shares his fascination with how human beings relate to technology, and vice versa. In her new book, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” she sees the day coming when we’ll turn to robots and computers more than other people for comfort, intimacy and solace. It is not a day to look forward to.

Turkle, a clinical psychologist, devotes the first and most provocative half of “Alone Together” to what she calls “the robotic moment” -- when we are ready to accept robot interactions as equal, and in some ways superior, to our often-messy interactions with each other.

We are, Turkle suggests, at “the still center of a perfect storm. Overwhelmed, we have been drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand: Facebook friends, avatars, IRC chat partners. If convenience and control continue to be our priorities, we shall be tempted by sociable robots, where, like gamblers at their slot machines, we are promised excitement programmed in, just enough to keep us in the game.”

Sociable Robots

Sociable robots and the people who love them take up a good deal of space in “Alone Together,” ranging from mass-market toys like Furby and My Real Baby to Roxxxy, billed as “the world’s most sophisticated, talking sex robot.” As Turkle observes, “the shock troops of the robotic moment, dressed in lingerie, may be closer than most of us have ever imagined.”

Roxxxy, and its (her?) less morally freighted cohorts, raise the question of whether consolation gained from an inanimate object is really consolation at all. Turkle observes the interaction between Miriam, a depressed and lonely nursing-home resident, and Paro, a Japanese-developed “therapeutic robot” in the vague shape of a baby seal. Paro can make eye contact, is sensitive to touch and responds to how it is held and handled with purring and other feedback.

In attempting to provide comfort to the robot by stroking and talking to it, Turkle writes, Miriam “comforts herself.” If this moment were taking place between two people, Turkle says, it would have “profound therapeutic potential. We can heal ourselves by giving others what we most need.”


Ultimately, though, she finds something disturbing in the interaction: “Miriam experienced an intimacy with another, but she was in fact alone. Her son had left her, and as she looked at the robot, I felt that we had abandoned her as well.”

But it isn’t just lonely nursing-home residents who embrace the robotic moment: Turkle shows how willingly, even eagerly, others ranging from children to computer scientists suspend their disbelief and ascribe to gadgets the very things that make us humans human: thoughts, personality, emotions. You can’t help asking yourself whether we are truly as desperate for approbation as “Alone Together” makes it seem -- and to be troubled by the answer.

The second part of Turkle’s book retreats onto slightly more familiar turf: the extent to which the always-connected world diminishes rather than enhances our connectedness to other people. Here we meet Audrey, a teenager who prefers texting to talking and whose identity is so entwined with her digital life that she concludes: “If Facebook were deleted, I’d be deleted.”

Digital Bigamy

We also meet Pete, a 46-year-old in an unsatisfying marriage who is essentially committing digital bigamy on the role-playing site Second Life with a female avatar named Jade: “Pete and Jade talk (by typing) and then erotically engage their avatars, something that Second Life software makes possible with special animations.”

Second Life, Pete says, “gives me a better relationship than I have in real life. This is where I feel most myself.”

Sorry to break it to you, Pete, but maybe Second Life is a way to avoid dealing with human relationships, not improve upon them. “We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes,” Turkle concludes. “This is hard and will take work.”

As an MIT professor, Turkle is certainly no Luddite. It is OK, she says, to love technology. Just don’t expect it to respect you in the morning.

“Alone Together” is published by Basic (360 pages, $28.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is the technology columnist for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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