Robotic Relationships
March 16th, 2011

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?”

“Plastics?”

“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.

Really?

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.

6 Responses to “Robotic Relationships”

  1. Denise Says:

    Did GAP show you the video I sent him of my new iRobot vacuum? While I wouldn’t want a robot as a nanny and think that children need much more than what a piece of plastic and/or metal can provide, it is a great idea to have my vacuum on a schedule to go off while I’m at work. I’m hoping replacement of the workforce such as a nanny or an assistant doesn’t happen in my liftime. GAP might replace me with R2D2.

  2. Anne Says:

    I’m with you. I don’t see robots being a major part of our life as companions, but I do think they may crop up more commonly in other scenarios. An analogy, if you will…stay with me!! The Segway. When those came out and people predicted we’d all be riding them around in our daily lives I thought it was stupid. They ARE used all the time…but more by mall cops and airport security…not the everyday person. Perhaps robots will be similar.

    That’s all I’ve got. In general, it’s an odd idea to me…unless we can make them like Number 5 in “Short Circuit”. He was awesome.

  3. Cathy Says:

    I don’t see robots ever becoming a replacement for human connection. I see what you say about your friendships all being maintained electronically. However, I think that’s more a function of time and circumstance.

    I do worry about kids these days and all the interaction they have via text messaging and Facebook. (Just discovered “formspring” which appears to be the teen outlet for teen discussions not appropriate for Facebook!) But for every con, I bet I can think of a pro to go along with it. Electronic communication is more difficult to manage – there is no person to read. Sarcasm can be misconstrued, etc…

    If they do come up with real robots, please sign me up for one that can clean my house, do my laundry and my gardening. All things I currently have outside help for but none can seem to do as well as I would like. Then if I have to fire the robot, no hurt feelings – likely return to manufacturer for defective equipment. Kind of kidding, kind of not.

  4. Eva Evolving Says:

    “But I do worry that without practice our interpersonal skills might atrophy over time”

    This is the crux of it, right here. While technology seems so great right now, I worry about how it will change us over time. Interpersonal skills, ability to focus, how we learn and connect with people. For example, whenever we have to wait somewhere my husband immediately takes out his iPhone. Rather than just sit and enjoy a few minutes of quiet time, or having a conversation with those around him, he wants to be distracted. It seems we’ve lost the skill of patience somewhere in the shuffle.

    I really do believe technology has made our lives better and easier, I just don’t want it to go too far.

    As always, excellent thoughts Gale.

  5. Gale Says:

    Eva – Your comment reminds me of a story I read on another blog (the name of which now escapes me) where the parents had to take away their son’s video games because in a moment of frustration the kid (8 years old) banged on and broke his dad’s laptop. When discussing the incident with the kid’s teacher she explained the video games aren’t bad because they make kids violent, etc. They are bad because the rewire the brain to need instant gratification. Kids are less willing to wait for something, less willing to try again, less willing to demonstrate patience and restraint when faced with anything unpleasant. I think the same goes for all kinds of electronic distractions. What starts as a harmless diversion becomes an addiction that has implications we can’t wholly understand yet.

  6. BigLittleWolf Says:

    That other blog was JustAddFather.com. He wrote about his son.

    When I think of robotics, I think of industry and also medical technology – the ways in which (theoretically) robotics can really facilitate advancements we would benefit from. And I prefer to think in the context of new jobs/technologies rather than robots replacing human roles.

    As for losing our capacity to interact, for some of us, technology is bridging very real physical gaps, allowing for more information and less isolation. That makes our lives better. As I watch my teenage sons who love their technologies, they certainly haven’t lost their interpersonal skills. Perhaps our capacities broaden in varying ways, and maybe we don’t need to think of them as having a finite single-threaded sort of capacity in this instance?