Sherry Turkle on companion robots

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It’s a fair assumption that most people would gladly accept a massage robot. Or a Jetsons-esque robot maid. But would you want a robot shoulder to cry on? Would you buy companion robots?

sherry turkle MIT
MIT professor Sherry Turkle on companion robots and the cross-section of technology and human connection.

It’s a concern that makes MIT sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle wary.

“I don’t think that robots should be our new best friends,” she told Ramona in discussing the idea of a robot evolution. Robots will never know the arc of a human life, will never know death, will never fear death, will never know life, will never know what it is to have a child, will never know what it is to fear the loss of a child, will never know what it is to know life. Why would they be somebody I would want to talk about my child?”

Technology allows us to improve our lives and improve ourselves in countless ways, be it mentally, physically or simply by making life more convenient. But in allowing social networks and technologies to become, as Turkle puts it, “the architects of our intimacy,” are we pushing things too far?

There’s certain elements of the human experience, particularly in how we socialize with one another, that perhaps shouldn’t merely be simulated. Turkle points to a study she conducted in which she asked subjects if they’d be accept an implant that immediately taught them calculus. Most said yes. But when she asked if they’d accept a chip that gave them the collected works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, they said no.

“They didn’t (just) want the skill, they wanted the experience as the person of the struggle through it, they didn’t want to just have it.”

As we integrate digital technologies deeper and deeper into our lives, and as the distinction between what is organic and what is machine becomes blurrier, its valuable to keep in mind if we want a simulated version of connection, without the effort and time that goes in to developing relationships. If you’re feeling alone, companion robots might be able to bring you a whiskey and ask what’s wrong, but is that a real connection?

Watch Sherry’s full interview below.


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