Robots Among Us
Your life might not be populated with whirring and clicking creatures motoring around your house, but all of us depend on artificial intelligence in some way, even if only tangentially. Manufacturing plants and hospitals use robotic machines. Many of us interact with Siri or Alexa. Apps manage our finances and our entertainment. If you use those self-checkout lanes at the supermarket, you’re being helped by a computer that is, essentially, a stationary robot.
In the technological and business world, there’s a lot of excitement about the possibilities. Sarwant Singh expressed the hope that we’ll soon be able to “create a new breed of mobile robots that act just like humans.”  Rachel England, in her article about some up-and-coming robots, points out that eventually we may all own machines that “do lots of our work for us [so] we can lay (sic) back with a margarita.”  Is this really what we want, to have robotic doppelgangers meet our every whim? Is life just about being waited on, luxuriating in idleness?
Once again, we’ve gotten caught up in a new technological invention that seems to have a life of its own. Already, the internet and computer games have impacted our ability to create, our capacity to manage our emotions, and our skill in negotiating relationships, and none of this for the better.
How We’ve Changed
As as we become used to responding to one another with emojis and superficial encouragement, as we seek information that can be digested in mere moments, we stop looking for depth. We no longer know what intimacy is. Truth becomes less important than emotionally-satisfying sound bites. Having little direct feedback, we pepper our online comments with emotional outbursts and unprocessed thoughts. Because we receive little insight into how our snap judgments and assumptions misguide us, we no longer consider ideas and arguments raised by the “other” side. Soon, listening will become the province of specialized robots and a few, anachronistic humans.
Of course, there are many who would say my concerns stem from my age or my limited understanding of the benefits posed by this exciting, new technology. Such people might point to past Cassandras, claiming that their predictions never came to pass.
Yet is that so true? Think of how humans lived over 100 years ago, of how long we could sustain our attention, how focused we could be on our children, our tasks, our inner state of being, our lives. Automation, television, cars, even books have changed the functioning of our brains. All these inventions have encouraged increased isolation. Now, the lure of the internet, of gaming technology, have made us more lonely than ever, and the incidence of anxiety and depression in today’s teenagers has soared.
Our Essential Nature
Not that any of this is really new. For hundreds of years, if not longer, we have sought entertainment, distraction, the oblivion of a drugged-out haze. We’ve brutalized one another since before we evolved into homo sapiens. Relationships are difficult, and especially in the days when divorce was unheard of, spouses often fought with one another. Children were ignored and abandoned.
Perhaps the problem isn’t technology, but our essential nature.
So what is our essential nature? Obviously, it’s not all good, nor all bad. While we are often unkind, thoughtless, ignorant, and impatient, that is not all we are. Religious rules, tribal taboos, and civil laws were developed to help rein us in. This indicates that we need such reining. It also indicates that we have the wisdom to consider how best to live together. It indicates that we can be good. We have the capacity to sacrifice ourselves for others, to give generously, to fulfill our promises, to love, and to forgive one another when we fail.
We also have the capacity to anthropomorphize.
In his collection of short stories, I, Robot, Isaac Asimov postulated “three laws of robotics.” These stated that a robot was not to harm a human, either through direct action or inaction; that a robot must obey a person’s orders, unless they conflicted with the first law; and that a robot must protect itself, unless by so doing, it breaks the other laws.
Of course, in no real world would every manufacturer of artificially-intelligent machines adhere to any set of rules governing the behavior of their product. Besides, Asimov used his laws less to suggest a course we should follow as to allow him to set up plot problems involving conflicts that could stymie his robots. His point, however, was not really to talk about robots. As explored these no-win scenarios, he did what every writer does: he examined what it meant to be human. We need to make everything about us, whether as a species or as individuals. This makes artificial intelligence appealing and dangerous.
In her book about robots and the internet, Sherry Turkle describes how children treat robotic toys as real, burying them with somber rituals when they break down.  This isn’t so different from the girl who loves her doll or the stuffed animal who becomes real in a boy’s eyes. Unable to keep from imbuing metaphorical life with human properties, we believe in the feelings of dolls, animals, and machines. We talk to our cars and computers. When a gadget comes equipped with limbs or wide, innocent eyes, we are easily fooled into treating it like a friend. Given our propensity to turn everything into a “mini-me,” and because of our need for social interactions, we quickly imagine that robotic toys are our friends and online communities are our neighbors.
Living in the Fantasy
This is an illusion.
No matter how much like people our robots become, they are not human. They have no ability to befriend us, for they have no emotions, unless directed by their computer programming. They have no history to share with us. Within their brains, there are no mirror neurons to give them true empathy. Like narcissists and sociopaths, robots can only simulate empathy.
Yet we are, apparently, happy with that. As Turkle writes, “We seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.”  The more we engage in online activity, the less we seem to care about one another. Even so, some technocrats want to use robots to take care of our babies and our parents. To believe that robots can effectively babysit or companion our children and elders, is misguided.
When she describes robots who act as therapists, often by giving people an opportunity to vent, Turkle says that we’re wrong to think this is somehow helping us. We now know that what allows clients to change is not so much the specific tool a therapist uses, but the relationship she has with her clients, a relationship whose very imperfections make it successful.
What We Need
Turkle points out that when we reduce caregiving and listening to a set of skills and actions, we “cheapen the notion of companionship to a baseline of interacting with something. We reduce relationship and come to see this reduction as the norm.”  We forget that relationships are made up, as Martin Buber tells us, of an I and a Thou. No machine can be either.
To help us understand why this is a problem, Turkle explains how children learn to care about others. When young , we see the world in simple terms: black and white, good and bad. Though some of us never outgrow this limited worldview, most of us eventually learn that life is complex. We discover that people we think are bad sometimes show kindness and integrity, while those we love and depend on may let us down. More importantly, we learn that we don’t have to stay hurt and mad forever. We can forgive and move on.
At least we can do this, Turkle explains, if “we learn to tolerate disappointment and ambiguity” and if we come to “accept others in their complexity.”  We constantly surprise, delight, and disappoint one another. We must learn to make promises, to experience shame when we break those promises, to forgive one another for falling short, and to move forward in loving commitment.
With robots, on the other hand, we need not learn any of this. Instead, we get what we want without effort. When interacting with robots, we aren’t in relationship with anything but ourselves and our fantasies. If we are not the center of the universe, robots will never remind us of that. We need not give and take, change and grow. Instead, we learn even better how to objectify those around us.
Maintaining Our Humanity
Our desire for connection and closeness is so vital that we will seek relationships with almost anything, including electronic gadgets. Yet childcare robots are like the wire mothers who might be able to feed a baby monkey, but can’t give him the connection he needs to grow. Like orphaned children who are not touched, monkeys with wire mothers die. If infants do survive such cold competence, they will grow up stunted, for robotic parents do not provide the mirroring children need to develop their own emotional intelligence. Turkle does not believe they ever will.
Nonetheless, robots are here to stay. Indeed, they are likely to become more and more a part of our lives, or at least the lives of those with the resources to own them. How do we understand our relationships with these inanimate objects that trick us into thinking they’re alive? How do we sustain our humanity when, because of the influence of electronic toys, we are drawn increasingly not toward, but away from, one another?
Perhaps we will figure out a way to live with our new toys without damaging too many generations of children. Even now, because of our addictive response to the internet and our cell phones, to those gadgets that draw our attention away from those we love, including our children, that amp us up without allowing our minds and bodies the time they need to settle and still, companies are selling apps to regulate our online usage. Individuals are holding one another accountable for limiting their online life. How much of a difference this will make, we have yet to find out.
Life Is Sacred
Building robots who can free us from any and all grunt work so we can sip margaritas uninterrupted, so we can indulge our urges and our addictions, will not make us happy. Instead, out of such idleness will come boredom, futility, anger, emptiness, and sorrow.
If we want to find peace, if we want to be close to our children, if we want to raise healthy adults who can think critically and love deeply, if we want to encourage forgiveness and compassion, we will need to break our addiction to artificial intelligence and seek out a real intelligence: the human life around us, the animals who nurture us, the gardens, the trees, the stars, the moon. Life is sacred, and we need to treat it that way. If we do, we may find that the anxiety, depression, and ugliness we see around us today will heal.
In faith and fondness,
- Singh, Sarwant, “Robots in Our Homes and In Our Personal Lives,” Forbes, April 15, 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarwantsingh/2015/04/15/robots-in-our-homes-and-in-our-personal-lives/#489d70e37c17 , accessed 3/23/19.
- England, Rachel, “Robots Are Already Taking Over – We Interact with Them Every Day,” Economy, February 22, 2017, https://www.ecnmy.org/engage/robots-are-already-taking-over-we-interact-with-them-every-day/, accessed 3/23/19.
- Turkle, Sherry, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, New York: Basic Books, 2011.
- Ibid 29.
- Ibid 154.
- Ibid 155.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved