Sherry Turkle: [Full interview transcript]

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Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” invites Ramona Pringle into her home, to talk about robot evolution, technology, and the difference between a “connection” and a “conversation”. Read Sherry’s full bio here…

Click here to watch Sherry’s interview, “Alone Together.”

Sherry: I’m Sherry Turkle, I am a professor at MIT. I’m trained as a sociologist and psychologist and from the minute I hit MIT at the beginning of the personal computer revolution, in the late 70s, I have been studying people and their relationships to technology: not what computer do for us but what computers do to us. To our relationships with each other and to our relationships with ourselves, really how computers change the way we think.

We look to robots and in the future even robot companions to be more to each other in places where we’ve disappointed each other. Perhaps even as companions, or teachers, or nanny-bots, or elder-bots and how we look to online life to – as places where we can be more to each other, then we’ve allowed ourselves to be in our face-to-face life. So I look at sociable robots and sociable networks, the social network, as places of intimate technology and in these two new places the sociable robots and the sociable networks, I find cause to be more pessimistic and more kinda spinning a cautionary tale, then I had before.

Ramona: You’ve been called the “couples therapist” between humanity and technology but people go to couples therapy with the hopes of making things work so when it comes to the relationship between humanity and technology what steps do you think need to be taken in order for this relationship to work?

Sherry: The idea that robots will be our best companions, robots will be our new best friends, these are, these are research projects at MIT: to make a robot that’ll be your new best friend. I don’t think that robots should be our new best friends. 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? That what you need a best friend for, you know. What’s with this robot best friend thing? Robots with the elderly, elder care-bot, nanny-bots, I mean, we are going to get ourselves into a lot of trouble.

So if I’m couples therapist between humanity and technology I’d like to see us having relationships that make sense and that aren’t ones of substitution. Essentially that what I–SO many things for technology to do to help as opposed to substituting more people where you really need a person.

Ramona: What are your thoughts on robot evolution or the merging of man and machine?

Sherry: Well I think there is going to be a certain amount or merging with technology and people like, already there are chips for Parkinson’s, there’ll be chips for, I wear contact lenses, I consider that a merging, there is going to be cochlear implants, there’s going to be heart implants. I think we’re unproblematically on our way to improving our bodies and increasingly there will be ways in which we’re going to be improving our brains by the use of technology. I once did a study that I loved which was asking people: “would you take a chip, an implant, that would give you calculus?” Just a calculus implant and most people think, “Yeah” they would take calculus by an implant.Then it was, “would you take a chip that would give you the works of Dostoevsky?” and most people said, “no.” The Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Faulkner you had to read it, you had to be a person and experience it. They didn’t want the skill, they wanted the experience as the person of the struggle through it, they didn’t want to just have it.

I think that there’s going to be resistance to the automation of human life. I think that things that have to do with the body and replacement of knees and hips, and joints and we are going to be very tempted to improve our physical stalk and I think going to be hard for us to know when to stop and what the limits of that are, and when we want to that that we’re we say we don’t want to be super human humans and I think that’s going to be moral and ethical decisions that are coming upon us fast.

I don’t see this merging with machines decision as being a slam-dunk yes I’m just going to become a robot. I think there is a lot of species chauvinism that people are going to have about maintaining their identities as human beings.

Ramona: Why do you think we have this desire to out-source the human experience?

Sherry: I think we are lonely and afraid of intimacy and I think that robots touch on some button that we can have friendship without the demands of intimacy, companionship without the demands of intimacy, we can somehow have connection without risk. They push some button where we will never have to be alone, we will never have to be alone and yet we will never really have to be threatened by the risks of intimacy or abandonment.

Ramona: Is there a danger that without risk and without intimacy that we become–

Sherry: YES!

Ramona: Robots?

Sherry: Yes! I mean I think we lose–When I say we short change ourselves, I think we become less. When we short change ourselves you become lessened, you become more limited in your capacity to connect. When you connect with a robot you haven’t connected because there’s nobody home to connect to. So you connect to something that’s not there to really forge a relationship with so you don’t really have any practice in forging a mutual relationship. So I don’t think relationally good is going to come out of, “I’m in love with my robot. I’m connection with my robot. I’m here with my robot. My robot loves me, I love my robot.”


  • Sherry Turkle studies the connection between humans and technology
  • We build robots to fill a human need, such as companionship or lonliness
  • Robots cannot replace humans because they do not understand human experience (Ex. death, loss, achievement)
  • We are on the path to merging with technology, but she wonders if human being’s need to maintain their human identity will cause tension in the future
  • Relationships with robots can never be the same because they are not mutual and without that, we are limiting our capacity to connect

For more from Sherry Turkle, check out her rdigitaLIFE interview on online communities and follow her on Twitter @STurkle.


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