A couple of weeks ago GAP and I were driving somewhere and he said to me, “You know what the next big thing is going to be?”
“No.” He blew right past my joke. “Robots.” And then he went on to tell me how we are standing in the doorway of a whole new era of robotics. I felt like I’d traveled back to the early eighties but still listened attentively while he told me of an article he read about recent advancements in robots.
Then, driving to work one morning last week I heard this piece on NPR about… robots. As it turns out GAP was not so far off the mark after all.
Apparently there is, in fact, a new wave of robots being designed, built, and actually used in society. Up to this point most robots (C-3PO notwithstanding) have been utilitarian in nature. They performed repetitive physical functions like assembling car parts. They lacked distinctly human characteristics and they presented no threat to our understanding of interpersonal relationships.
However, the nature of robots is changing. Per NPR robotic babies are being used to comfort the elderly, and robotic nannies are helping look after children. According to Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, the evolution of robots to fill human emotional needs is cause for concern. Turkle was interviewed in the NPR piece and commented that the difference between new robots and old robots is that the new robots are, “proposing themselves to substitute for human beings in these more intimate roles.”
Turkle goes on within the interview to explain that the people she has interviewed have expressed interest in robot companions because of the disappointment they experience in other people. She even told of one woman whose boyfriend was such a slouch that she envisioned replacing him with a robotic boyfriend.
Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe it’s all written on the wall in front of me and I’m still not seeing it. But I just don’t see this actually happening. There may be a sad, lonely, person here or there who dreams of life with an inanimate companion, but I think that person is the exception. The reason I believe this is that we know the difference. (Did anyone else see Lars and the Real Girl?) We know that programmed affection from a machine is not the same as real affection from a person. No amount of technological sophistication can change that.
What interests me more, though, is a tangent to the robot premise. I wonder about the increasingly robotic nature of our relationships with other people. We keep up via Facebook and Twitter. We hit Reply All on e-mail threads. My MBA girlfriends and I try to connect for one breakfast or dinner per month, but even that has been hard now that most of us are mothers of very young families. Apart from the three colleagues with whom I eat lunch most days, the sweeping majority of my interaction with my friends is electronic.
This is largely due to convenience, but there is also a safety net in mass electronic communication. If I’m sitting in a one-on-one situation with you I have to be tuned into you. I have to read you. I have to respond to you. That’s a lot of work, not to mention the fact that I could really screw it up. Conversely, I have an audience of one. If something I say doesn’t resonate with you, it might hit me hard. But in the electronic realm we communicate with a panel of friends. We only have to talk about ourselves. Chances are good that someone among our online friends will see fit to endorse what we post. And we only have to respond to people if we really want to. Most of what we read goes untouched. We could never get away with this kind of behavior in real life.
I don’t think we will ever rely on robots the way we rely on people. It just won’t happen. But I do worry that without practice our interpersonal skills might atrophy over time, and with that atrophy our in-person relationships will become unsatisfying. The risk here is not that robots will replace people as companions. The risk is that without practice our social skills become so scant that we might, even if only for a moment, want them to. And that, to me, is scary enough.