Mon, Jan 31, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Man’s new best friend

Why do so many of us prefer simulated relationships to real ones, and is reliance on technology altering what it means to be human?

By Rafael Behr  /  The Observer, LONDON

A 165cm tall humanoid robot gestures at Sanrio headquarters in Tokyo.

Photo: AFP

The Furby is a fluffy robot toy that was popular in the late 1990s. It looks part owl, part hamster and is programmed to respond to human attention. It has no intelligence, but it can fake attachment. In an intriguing psychological experiment, subjects are asked to take a Furby, a Barbie doll and a live gerbil and hold them upside down in turn. The rodent writhes in obvious discomfort and people quickly release it. The Barbie doesn’t react and can be inverted indefinitely. The Furby says “Me scared” in a convincingly infantile voice. People ignore the plea, but only for a few moments. They know the toy has no feelings, but the simulation is enough to provoke empathetic urges.

The test is one of many cited by Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other as evidence that humanity is nearing a “robotic moment.” We already filter companionship through machines; the next stage, she says, is to accept machines as companions. Soon, robots will be employed in “caring” roles, entertaining children or nursing the elderly, filling gaps in the social fabric left where the threads of community have frayed. Meanwhile, real-world interactions are becoming onerous. Flesh-and-blood people with their untidy impulses are unreliable, a source of stress, best organized through digital interfaces — BlackBerries, iPads, Facebook.

This not a science-fiction dystopia. Alone Together is the culmination of years of empirical research. Turkle has watched people interact with machines and socialize on digital networks. Her inquiry starts out clinical and becomes philosophical: Can humanity transform the way it communicates without altering, at some level, what it means to be human?

Plainly, technology is doing peculiar things to us. The average American teenager sends thousands of text messages every month, and spends hours each day on Instant Messenger, MySpace and Facebook. (E-mail, Turkle reports, is considered old-fashioned by most under-25s.) None of these things existed a generation ago. Adults are matching the pace of digitization set by their children, eking out proxy lives on blogs, in multi-player games and chatrooms. Millions of us appear to find simulations of life more alluring than life. We are training ourselves to fear a world unmediated by computers.


Turkle is not a Luddite, nor is Alone Together a salvo in some analog counter-reformation. But it does add to a growing body of cyber-skeptic literature: Recent examples include Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, warning that our cognitive faculties decay as we skim distractedly from one Web page to another, and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, which rebuts fashionable notions of the Web as a tool for advancing democracy. These are correctives to what Turkle calls the “heroic narrative” of the Internet — the effusions of digital evangelists who confuse technological advance with human progress.

The argument in Alone Together unfolds in two halves. The first section deals with objects that imitate living things. Turkle’s subjects, mostly children and the elderly, are given robot companions for varying lengths of time. Universally, a bond is formed. The Furby exerts a hold over anyone who nurtures it for a few weeks. More sophisticated models provoke deep emotional connections. Scientists developing the latest robots report feelings of pseudo-parental attachment. They hate leaving the machines “alone” in empty laboratories at night.

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