Sherry Turkle


American Educator and Cultural Analyst, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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If there is no underlying meaning, or a meaning we shall never know, postmodern theorists argue that the privileged way of knowing can only be through an exploration of surfaces. This makes social knowledge into something that we might navigate much as we explore the Macintosh screen and its multiple layers of files and applications.

Pinball games were constrained by physical limitations, ultimately by the physical laws that govern the motion of a small metal ball. The video world knows no such bounds. Objects fly, spin, accelerate, change shape and color, disappear and reappear. Their behavior, like the behavior of anything created by a computer program, is limited only by the programmer?s imagination. The objects in a video game are representations of objects. And a representation of a ball, unlike a real one, never need obey the laws of gravity unless its programmer wants it to.

The new technologies allow us to dial down human contact, to titrate its nature and extent.

If we're not able to be alone, we're going to be more lonely. And if we don't teach our children to be alone, they're only going to know how to be lonely.

Sociable robotics exploits the idea of a robotic body to move people to relate to machines as subjects, as creatures in pain rather than broken objects. That even the most primitive Tamagotchi can inspire these feelings demonstrates that objects cross that line not because of their sophistication but because of the feelings of attachment they evoke.

Connecting in sips may work for gathering discreet bits of information, they may work for saying, ?I?m thinking about you,? or even for saying, ?I love you,? but they don?t really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other. And we use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves. So a flight from conversation can really matter because it can compromise our capacity for self-reflection. For kids growing up, that skill is the bedrock of development.

Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?

Enduring technological optimism, a belief that as other things go wrong, science will go right.

For three decades, in describing people?s relationships with computers, I have often used the metaphor of the Rorschach, the inkblot test that psychologists use as a screen onto which people can project their feelings and styles of thought. But as children interact with sociable robots like Furbies, they move beyond a psychology of projection to a new psychology of engagement. They try to deal with the robot as they would deal with a pet or a person.

AIBO (artificial intelligence robot meaning ?companion?) permits something different: attachment without responsibility.

Another wish, and machines which he had never seen would fill the chamber with the projected images of any articles of furniture he might need. Whether they were 'real' or not was a problem that had bothered few men for the last billion years. Certainly they were no less real than that other imposter, solid matter.

Artificial intelligence is often described as the art and science of getting machines to do things that would be considered intelligent if done by people. We are coming to a parallel definition of artificial emotion as the art of getting machines to express things that would be considered feelings if expressed by people.

As I became a sociologist, you know, there's a fancy word for studying this; it's called bricolage. It's the science of studying meanings and the interplay of objects, and I realized that that's kind of what I'd been doing all the time. A little bit like MoliŠre's, you know, Monsieur Jourdain who'd been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, I'd been a bricoleur all my life without knowing it. Again, there is psychological risk in the robotic moment. Logan?s comment about talking with the AIBO to get thoughts out suggests using technology to know oneself better. But it also suggests a fantasy in which we cheapen the notion of companionship to a baseline of interacting with something. We reduce relationship and come to see this reduction as the norm.

As I listen for what stands behind this moment, I hear a certain fatigue with the difficulties of life with people. We insert robots into every narrative of human frailty. People make too many demands; robot demands would be of a more manageable sort. People disappoint; robots will not. When people talk about relationships with robots, they talk about cheating husbands, wives who fake orgasms, and children who take drugs. They talk about how hard it is to understand family and friends. I am at first surprised by these comments. Their clear intent is to bring people down a notch. A forty-four-year-old woman says, ?After all, we never know how another person really feels. People put on a good face. Robots would be safer.? A thirty-year-old man remarks, ?I?d rather talk to a robot. Friends can be exhausting. The robot will always be there for me. And whenever I?m done, I can walk away.?

As infants, we see the world in parts. There is the good?the things that feed and nourish us. There is the bad?the things that frustrate or deny us. As children mature, they come to see the world in more complex ways, realizing, for example, that beyond black and white, there are shades of gray. The same mother who feeds us may sometimes have no milk. Over time, we transform a collection of parts into a comprehension of wholes.4 With this integration, we learn to tolerate disappointment and ambiguity. And we learn that to sustain realistic relationships, one must accept others in their complexity. When we imagine a robot as a true companion, there is no need to do any of this work.

As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves.

Because of my training as a clinician, I believe that this kind of moment, if it happens between people, has profound therapeutic potential. We can heal ourselves by giving others what we most need.

Because you can text while doing something else, texting does not seem to take time but to give you time. This is more than welcome; it is magical.

But this is not a book about robots. Rather, it is about how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face. We are offered robots and a whole world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices. As we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude. We talk of getting ?rid? of our e-mails, as though these notes are so much excess baggage. Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they ?reveal too much.? They would rather text than talk. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice. It is more efficient, they say. Things that happen in ?real time? take too much time. Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world ?unplugged? does not signify, does not satisfy. After an evening of avatar-to avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?

But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyber-intimacies slide into cyber-solitudes. And with constant connection comes new anxieties of disconnection,

Computers no longer wait for humans to project meaning onto them. Now, sociable robots meet our gaze, speak to us, and learn to recognize us. They ask us to take care of them; in response, we imagine that they might care for us in return. Indeed, among the most talked about robotic designs are in the area of care and companionship. In summer 2010, there are enthusiastic reports in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on robotic teachers, companions, and therapists. And Microsoft demonstrates a virtual human, Milo, that recognizes the people it interacts with and whose personality is sculpted by them. Tellingly, in the video that introduces Milo to the public, a young man begins by playing games with Milo in a virtual garden; by the end of the demonstration, things have heated up?he confides in Milo after being told off by his parents.

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American Educator and Cultural Analyst, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology