In my senior capstone seminar we've been reading Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle's premise is that the 'always-on' connectivity that has so insinuated itself into our everyday lives is already altering the way we emotionally relate to one another. Indeed, she suggests that we are coming to prefer the mediated, controlled, opt-in or out nature of on-line relationships to the messier, more complicated and more demanding real-time versions.
The natural next step, she posits, will be preferring relationships with emotionally-supportive robots. Upon first reading this, my students are incredulous. Nonsense, they say. Robots--even really smart and human-like robots--could never replace our desire for flesh and blood friends and lovers. Never. It simply isn't going to happen.
"Really?" I respond. "Don't we already use our smart phones for affirmation? How many of you have ever felt a little deflated when your status update received no likes? How many sleep with your phone and reach for it first thing upon rising to see what you've missed? How many of you have ever felt anxious or peevish because you forgot your phone or were out of coverage? Just imagine having to wait somewhere without any access to electronically provided affirmation or consolation. Does that sound stressful to you?"
"But that's not fair," they push back. "My phone is my alarm. Besides, people have to be able to get in touch with me."
"How many of you already prefer texting to calling? Calling means you actually have to deal with people, make conversation, ask them how they are. Texting is so much easier."
A few looks of recognition follow.
"Keep in mind, too, that out hypothetical robots don't have to be capable of actual human love and friendship. They just have to give us a cheaper, more convenient substitute. And we do love our junk food, don't we? We know it's horrible, but we love it. Is it really so far-fetched to think that we may come to rely on smart robots for a kind of junk love that satisfies the human desire for connection and affirmation but requires no large commitment on our part? And best of all, this cheap, always available love comes with no risk of rejection."
And here I am reminded of the line from Citizen Kane, when one of Kane's editors says to him: "You want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules." And isn't this what we all want in our adolescent heart of hearts? All the love we don't deserve with none of the inconvenience or risk of having to go looking for it. A Citizen Kane reference would be lost on my students, however; so instead I say, "Wouldn't we all like an operating system that could love us? Anybody seen "Her"?
I once heard someone say that being a Marxist in the United States was a bit like being a spoilsport at an orgy. You might update that statement today by replacing Marxist with technophobe.