Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Loving The Technology That Does Not Love In Return

I'm well aware that I have "friends" and "relationships" with people I have never met face to face. We interact with a technological extension I (or they) have made - blogs, email, social networks, etc.

There are also "bots" and other types of software which try and capture my attention, want me to respond, to form a "relationship". Some folks, for instance, use Facebook and become "friends" with a manufactured, non-human product. One can, for example, be a "friend" with Tide detergent. Tide's Facebook page reads on Jan. 2, 2011 - "Tide wants to know if you made any New Year's resolutions?"

It's rather unsettling to consider that a box of detergent "wants to know" anything.

Professor Sherry Turkle at MIT has been studying the impacts of technology on society and has a new book on the way out, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other", which examines the current usage/relationships with social networking, with robotics and other similar issues. She's considering how the habits we cultivate now with technology might play out --

During her research, Turkle visited several nursing homes where resi­dents had been given robot dolls, including Paro, a seal-shaped stuffed animal programmed to purr and move when it is held or talked to. In many cases, the seniors bonded with the dolls and privately shared their life stories with them.

"There are at least two ways of reading these case studies," she writes. "You can see seniors chatting with robots, telling their stories, and feel positive. Or you can see people speaking to chimeras, showering affection into thin air, and feel that something is amiss."

In the article linked above, another researcher, David Levy, considers that robots which might attend to the elderly or babysit to be a wonderful concept, but Turkle views such ideas dangerous:

David Levy is saying: For someone who is having trouble with the people world, I can build something. Let's give up on him. I have something where he will not need relationships, experiences, and conversations. So let's not worry for him. For a whole class of people, we don't have to worry about relationships, experiences, and conversations. We can just issue them something."

Turkle continues: "Who's going to say which class of people get issued something? Is it going to be the old people, the unattractive? The heavy-set people? Who's going to get the robots?"

Levy's response: "Who is going to get the robots is an ethical question, and I am no ethicist. What I am saying is that it is better for the 'outcasts' to be able to have a relationship with a robot than to have no relationship at all."

It's a fascinating article worth reading and considering and I look forward to reading Turkle's new book. I have many, many books, and some are among my favorite things to read. But I doubt a book ever has thought of me.

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