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Alone Together

Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other

Sherry Turkle

If a robot makes you love it, is it alive?

When Animal Kingdom opened in Orlando, populated by real animals, visitors complained that they weren't as realistic as the animatronic creatures in other Disneyworld exhibits. The crocs just lay there instead of swishing their tails and opening their jaws.

David Levy's Love and Sex With Robots suggests robots will substitute where people fail. Impatient with philosophical quibbles as to validity of any relationship on human terms of engagement. Simply, does being with a robot make you feel better?

Turkle is in the philosophers' camp. She wants 'authenticity' in relationships, which she claims has to involve shared experience of being human - awareness of life and death and all in between. A robot is just a piece of performance art.

But the suggestion of Levy et al is not that robots will be "better than nothing" but actually better.

Robots can avoid the 'uncanny valley' if they make eye contact, track our motion, and make gestures that show friendship.

Met a beautiful young girl who surprised her by wishing for a robot who could provide a no-risk relationship that would stave off loneliness, a non-demanding boyfriend.

Turkle notes that people are willing to consider robots as pets/confidants/lovers, not caring if they are real or not. She writes "The phrase 'technological promiscuity' comes to mind". Then she lists off the reasons why people might prefer a robot:

"I hear a certain fatigue with the difficulties of life with people. People make too many demands; robot demands would be more manageable. People disappoint; robots will not... no cheating husbands or wives that fake orgasms."

Online life where you can reinvent yourself as a more attractive avatar, you can polish your Facebook profile, and edit texts. Above all, you can keep the real world at a distance.

New ethical landscape of toys like Furbies and My Real Baby - whereas nobody cares if a rag doll is mistreated, new toys are too close to real.

The safety of confiding in a robot. People are risky. And a robot could monitor all your emails, messages and Web searches, and come to a much better understanding of you than a human friend.

Children growing up quite happy with idea of a robot caring for them. Film examples such as Star Wars R2D2, Spielberg's AI:Artificial Intelligence robot, Disney's Wall-E who saves a planet.

In Japan, busy adults unable to visit elderly parents so hire actors to visit. Some were too far in dementia to know the difference, but most did, and played along, enjoying the game. Everyone happy. But if ok to send in actors, why not send in a robot?

Paro, the small seal-like robot designed for old peoples' homes. Calming and comforting. $6000 each. It reacts to way it is touched - soft or hard - and understands about 500 English words.

As an expt, author left four My Real Babies at a nursing home over the summer. When she came back there were seven. Demand was so high that nursing staff went on eBay and bought three more. Popular with kids, but elderly fall in love. Robot asks to be looked after and the seniors feel wanted. And something to talk about. And they don't die.

People are most comfortable having robots look after 'difficult' patients such as those with dementia, but wonder why we don't have people to look after everyone else. Caregivers have so many patients and so little time.

People love their pets, but rarely classify them as "better than a human to talk to about impt decisions". They are not substitute humans. But robots like My Real Baby frequently are - the are seen as like people, or on the way to being people. Frequently have trouble reclaiming the dolls after study period. The seniors claim they are 'lost'. (Author usually just gave up and bought more rather than cause distress.)

The special thing about robots is they simulate listening, which answers one of our basic needs - people want to be heard. It is irrelevant that they don't really hear you.

Nursing homes - seniors prefer a robot to bathe them - less personal affront. And they are neutral - don't treat you as a child.

Basic mores changing in unexpected ways - young people saying they 'hook up' not bc they don't like idea of dating, but bc they feel they don't have time to sustain such relationships. Too much time needed for social media 'commitments' which they find more impt.

Older people have a HS idea of "friends" being people you know and like. But today, we have Facebook "friends" who are basically just contacts. The whole definition has changed. (And people are trying to manage more than the 150 Dunbar number of those contacts).

need to micro manage your Facebook profile - are you presenting the exact desired image - if you list 2 bands as favourites, does it change perceptions depending on which is listed first. "You get reduced to a list of your favourite things."

Talking on phone takes too much time - send me a text that I can process much faster. So you get an app that translates long voicemail messages into text so don't have to waste time listening to it. And kids not interested in landlines at all.

Avatars on games like Second Life etc give people a chance to practice alternate ways of behaving. Don't consciously do this, but experimentation and self-reflection sneak up on you.

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