Increasingly, I've been reading books and articles that express a growing discomfort with some of the unintended consequences of our reliance on computers. The latest book to cover it is Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle, a professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist, has written before about the impact of technology on our lives. In this book she examines the costs and risks to us of relying on technology for our emotional lives, either through sociable robots or our reliance on social networks and smart phones for our connections to others.
Her extensive research, conducted over the course of 15 years, examines how we are tethered to others through our mobile connections, but are more likely to feel lonely and overwhelmed by our need to stay in touch constantly. We think that caring robots could offer a solution to the needs of the elderly, but we are less likely to question why human hands are not the ones that will tend to the aging in their time of need.
Turkle also finds in her interviews with children that many are lonely and susceptible to warming to the comforts of a robo-pet, while their busy and overwhelmed parents are not home or not present when they are. Children have learned from their multitasking parents that you need to be constantly checking your smartphone and responding to the needs of others far from you, while often oblivious to the needs of loved ones right next to you.
Teens too are struggling to figure out just how to present themselves on social networks like Facebook. Profiles take on an important place in how teens are viewed by others and many interviewed for Turkle's book felt an urgent need to create a persona for themselves that would be liked and accepted by others, even if it didn't reflect who they really were. After a while, what was real and what was created seemed to blur for many of these teens.
It's not a pretty picture and I found myself worrying just how far our dependence on technology will go. I'm all for making lives more efficient with technology, but I am not willing to see face-to-face communication vanish because it takes too much time or because people used to texting their responses to others don't know how to handle the intricacies of personal relationships conducted in-person or on the phone.
Turkle asks an important question in her book, "The questions for the future are not whether children will love their robot companions more than their pets or even their parents. The questions are rather, What will love be? And what will it mean to achieve ever-greater intimacy with our machines? Are we ready to see ourselves in the mirror of the machine and to see love as our performances of love?"
In addition to Turkle's book, here are some other articles and videos that I have found thought-provoking on the subject of social technology and its impact on humans and robots:
- VIDEO: A new version of the Nao Robot -- with an improved emotion engine, introduced by Aldebaran Robotics CEO and founder Bruno Maisonnier (formerly an IT banking manager)
- WEBSITE: RoboEarth - a World Wide Web for robots where robots can share information and learn from each other about their behavior and their environment
- BOOK: Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Stephen Baker - a book about AI and the future of knowledge
- ARTICLE: A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans by John Markoff, The New York Times, February 15, 2011 - The implications of computer systems that may dispense with humans
- BLOG: David Pogue, A Parent's Struggle With a Child's iPad Addiction The New York Times, February 24, 2011 - The pros and cons of a gadget a child loves
- OP-ED: Abraham Verghese, Treat the Patient, Not the CT Scan The New York Times, February 27, 2011 - Verghese, a professor at Stanford University's School of Medicine, worries that medical technology can blind doctors to the needs of the sick
- OP-ED: Maureen Dowd, Have You Driven a Smartphone Lately? The New York Times, February 27, 2011 - The dangers of equipping cars with smart dashboards
- ARTICLE: Automaton, Know Thyself: Robots Become Self-Aware by Charles Q. Choi, Scientific American, February 24, 2011 - Teaching robots to become self-aware and to model what others are thinking
- ARTICLE: Mind vs. Machine by Brian Christian, The Atlantic, March 2011 - How one man tried to beat the smartest machines and learned what it means to be human
In her conclusion chapter, Turkle says:
"The networked culture is very young. Attendants at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure. This is human. But these days, our problems with the Net are becoming too distracting to ignore. At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other. We don't need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place."
I couldn't agree more. What about you?