Sex and the Single Robot, Part 2

In my last post, I was reflecting on the book Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, and the impact of sociable robots on our understanding of self, of other, and of intimacy. Like the apple in the Garden of Eden, technology is not only seductive, but enticingly deceptive (hmmm…what is the meaning behind Apple’s logo…?). It offers us alternative ways of connecting with one another without really connecting, virtual connections that are far more controllable than real time interactions, and that are justifiable in the name of “expediency.” But as Winston Churchill said of buildings: “We shape our buildings and then they shape us.” So too with technology: we shape our robots and they in turn shape us. One must then ask: how will interactions with sociable robots shape us as persons?

As social beings, our personal identity is forged in the perichoretic dance of selfhood—in the “dialectic of self and other than self,” as stated by Paul Ricoeur (The Self as An Other)–a reciprocal encounter of the self and the other in an I-Thou relationship. Our personal identity is grounded in the distinction between idem-identity and ipse-identity, in the confrontation between “same” and “other,” in the ongoing process of distinguishing “me” and “not me.” Furthermore, because our historical lives cannot be disentangled from the histories of others, our ipseity is determined by our narrative interaction with and response to the other. But if one’s self is defined and determined in the interface with the “other,” how does one come to understand oneself when that other is an object—a robot–and not a subject–an other with a personal history? Here, however, we find a further confounding variable: many of the sociable robots do indeed have a semblance of a “personal history,” one that “develops” in response to its relationship with humans. Many are programmed to “grow” and develop unique personalities based on interactions with their owners, a process that results in an interactive history, if not a personal one. One of Turkle’s observations is the struggle children experience in attempting to categorize sociable robots: are they alive or not? The children’s consensus? They are “alive enough.”

Disturbingly, they are also “alive enough” to be subjected to violence. One observation has been the tendency of children to exhibit violence toward these sociable robots, a tendency not exhibited in their interactions with inanimate dolls whose personalities are projections of the self. This recognized phenomenon has motivated “manufacturers” to program more recent robots to “shut down” in response to violence for fear of reinforcing it.

As technology progresses, it will be increasingly difficult to distinguish between “alive enough” and “alive.” We will be increasingly challenged to redefine the characteristics that determine “aliveness” and perhaps more importantly, “personhood.” For future adults who will have been raised with robotic companions, the challenge will be even greater. Will we ultimately subjectify objects or objectify subjects? Ironically, as we increasingly ascribe subjective characteristics to these mechanized objects–attributes of intelligence, emotions, and “personality,” and an understanding that they are somehow greater than the sum of their parts–we paradoxically understand ourselves as mechanical, programmed entities, the sum of mere mechanical processes.

Objectification of others can have sobering results. It is a problem frequently encountered in the medical profession where we distance ourselves by objectifying the other. Individuals become “diagnoses”–not persons with a disease. They are referred to not by name, but by “procedure and room number.” In so doing we detach and distance ourselves from them rather than identifying with their plight. And as Pellegrino has noted, moral detachment easily leads to moral abandonment.

Furthermore, there is the risk that as we increasingly interact with “personalities” that are programmed to hold us in their gaze and to fulfill our narcissistic needs while making no demands, we will come to expect the same of all others, especially as the gap between “alive” and “alive enough” progressively narrows. This will leave us imprisoned in the dungeons of self-absorption with no opportunity for freedom or growth through interpersonal interactions. One will never learn the “give-and-take” required for long-term human relationships.

Sociable robots are not mere “child’s toys.” The claim that interactions with sociable robots will make us “better friends and lovers” is not “evidence-based.” We will indeed remake ourselves and our intimacy with each other through our intimacy with machines, potentially objectifying both self and other in the process. And as we increasingly lose our ability to distinguish between human and machine, the implications for how we understand ourselves and others will be profound. Our understanding of humankind as Homo faber will acquire new significance as the “creator of tools” is recreated by them.

Whether our ventures into technology involve convenient communication, superficial connectivity, or physical and psychological intimacy, we must ask ourselves what we are losing in the midst of our “gains,” and whether it is too great a price to pay.

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