Robot Romanticism

Last Saturday I sat across from my Grandfather at a round table covered in checkered cloth.  Watching trains whir past outside of restaurant windows, conversation flowed easily as my family enjoyed a brunch of oatmeal, eggs, and french toast. With confidently agile fingertips, my mother swiped and tapped at a slate of bright and lifelike screen. The iPad took its own seat at our table and entered the conversation.

When my father described his interaction with a rose breasted grosbeak at our cabin in Northern Wisconsin, an image was quickly pulled up from Google. The web address for this blog found its way to the screen–a physical example of how my semesters at St. Olaf are spent. Pictures from facebook offered a window into my social life away from home. As the tablet made its way from chair to chair, held with careful curiosity by each member of the Gomoll clan, my Grandfather’s eyes continued to widen. His head shook  in disbelief. He waved away an opportunity to hold the electronic slate–preferring to look over shoulders rather than interact with such a foreign object. The rest of us brushed its surface and cradled it as if it were an old friend. For me, my parents, and my brother, this sort of technology is a seamless part of our lives. We live in fused worlds of the virtual and the real–blurring boundaries as we text at street corners and add to our growing archives of facebook “friends.”

My grandparents wrote letters back and forth during a war. They called their children in for dinner by yelling out the back door. When my Dad went away to college, the most intimate form of communication involved a monthly call on a telephone with a cord. My parents remember the first computers that filled up rooms. They spent long nights writing term papers on typewriters without a “delete” key. They witnessed the rapid transformation of society as the traditional became the technological. They watched as humans began to plug themselves in.

This summer, I plan to examine just what this “plugging in” has done to our population. Working with Jim Farrell in a follow-up to his 2010 book The Nature of College, I will research the electronic umbilical cord that ties us to parents and “friends,” the concept of emerging adulthood (which describes my generation’s delay of major life transitions like marriage and settling down,) the changing cultural meanings of “growing up,” and the transformation of politics and environmental consciousness in a more and more detached and electronic world.

Sherry Turkle, author of the eloquent ethnography Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other offers a unique perspective and voice to begin this summer’s ongoing conversation. An MIT technology and society specialist, Turkle explores our relationships in a digital landscape–focusing on how we use technology to construct ourselves and our realities. From robots and cyborgs to facebook and twitter, Turkle urges us to consider what devices tell us about our values and the loss of understanding our human “purposes.” As her title suggests, Turkle paints a picture of our constantly connected society–a society where bodies exist together in public spaces while minds fly across a digital terrain.

Surrounded by glowing screens from the moment we wake to the minute our heads hit the pillow and luminous green numbers proclaim the time “late,” we have developed an entirely new sense of place. Combining the real and virtual worlds, children born in the digital age now think in terms of search engines, “like” buttons, and mouse clicks. We feel an intimacy for objects that do not have the capacity to understand us. We imagine a future with robots who reliably care for the elderly and perform everyday tasks to perfection. In a society of multi-taskers, we become more robotic every day. Socially networked life keeps us more connected theoretically, but also allows us to hide from one another. We live lives of simultaneous introversion and extraversion. As Turkle describes children who learn to care by fretting over Furbies and Tamagatchis, elderly nursing home patients who tell their memories to robotic pet seals, the desensitization of virtual training that allows soldiers to more easily kill in combat, and the difficulty of “turning off” our many layers of virtual reality, she begs her reader to question how the exponential growth of technology has changed us. She begs us to think about the state of our relationships to each other and to technology–looking at how they represent what we want to stand for.

In the first half of her book, Turkle traverses an extensive study of robots. As I read about children who mourned the loss of their “dead” electronic pets, the strong emotional connections study participants felt to robots like AIBO, My Real BabyParo, Kismet, and Cog, and the trustworthy features of nursebots and potential “robot babysitters,” I began to wonder how the definition of “robots” in our society might extend beyond bodied electronic creatures. Turkle’s ethnographic exposure of interactions with robots might be used as a conduit for explaining why Americans (and other technological citizens across the globe) act the way they do.

In one telling example, Turkle describes her daughter’s experience at a public museum. Behind carefully placed plate glass, a gigantic Galapagos turtle sat slowly munching on leaves. His shell was still, huge claws resting idly on ground manipulated to look like a “natural” environment. Pressing her nose to the glass, Turkle’s daughter Rebecca glared at the animal with disappointed eyes. She told her mother the museum people should have replaced it with a robotic turtle. That way, she claimed, this turtle would be allowed to stay in its real home and museum-goers wouldn’t be so bored. When interviewed, dozens of other children echoed this sentiment. They wanted a robot. Rebecca would later point at a live jellyfish in shallow ocean waters and exclaim; “Look, Mommy, a jellyfish! It looks so realistic!”(4)

On a surface level, these accounts are the simple reactions of children who have been well educated in the “advantages” of technology. They understand that it can entertain and inform–that it is often “better” than the real thing. However, thinking about scenes like this museum moment are worrisome on a deeper level. They leave us wondering; Have the children of the new millennium lost the ability to appreciate the authentic? Have they become ignorant of the importance of history? What is authenticity in the digital world of today? Children, like adults, seem to believe that technology can solve all problems. How might this be detrimental in the face of environmental issues like global warming or the political disengagement of youth? With children who constantly expect to be surrounded by technology, how does development change? Are these kids destined to be perpetually distracted? From each of Turkle’s poignant portraits, questions like these are gleaned. Far-reaching and highly nuanced, these questions that move beyond the capacities of even the greatest electronic search engine. They require human emotion, understanding, and thought.

The notion of the capacity of human understanding leads to another overarching inquiry in Turkle’s Text: What does it take for something to be “alive?” Again and again, Turkle reminds us that we long for relationships in which we feel needed. It is therapeutic to care for someone (or something) else. In many cases, robots become a blank canvas for projection. They allow people to talk about disappointments and troubles, and to create ideal friends and playmates. And yet, these robots cannot provide empathy or recognize transference. They cannot play the role of therapist. Each of these points is covered in Turkle’s studies of the robot dog AIBO, the therapeutic seal Paro, furbies and tamagatchi toys in classrooms and homes, and interactions with complex MIT robot prototypes. However, I see these same interactions present in “robots” like facebook, cell phones, and personal computers. On facebook, we construct “ideal” versions of ourselves and our friends. Our cell phones hold text messages with lines that might not ever be said in person. Our lap tops broadcast a brand name and a certain persona–they allow us to categorize people as “apple” or “PC.” When we write on virtual walls and flip through notifications, we feel like we are caring for others and being cared for ourselves. When we receive 50 e-mails a day, we feel needed. We build ourselves and our identities in multiple realms as we “grow up.” We move from trying to gain the attention of a bored sounding furby while also impressing fellow kindergartners on the playground, to the pressures of creating an impressive facebook life juggled with a well constructed professional persona. Just as test subjects were reluctant to turn “off” robots they had invested their time and energy to “raise,” we are terrified of turning off the devices that hold meticulously constructed versions of ourselves.

Just as robots are programmed, Turkle reminds us that we too are programmed. In order to interact realistically with humans, robots must be taught “cultural scripts.” They learn to make eye contact, nod sympathetically, shake hands, and vary tones of voice. How are our cultural scripts programmed? In a new generation of “digital natives,” is technology beginning to program us instead of the other way around? What happens when robots begin to replace people in day cares and nursing homes? Roboticists originally created robots with the intention that they would help us to practice our relationship skills. And yet, it seems that interaction with robots may become a slippery slope. If we come to rely on robots to care for the young, the old, and the in between, we risk losing our ability to connect on a purely human level. A robot may perform perfectly, but this is not always a positive thing. In a world of robots (both literal and more abstract) our expectations for our fellow human beings are altered. We expect humans to be able to compete with technology. This is both unrealistic and frightening. Humans make mistakes. We feel and we evaluate in ways that are not systematic or calculated.  When we begin to expect our human relationships to live up to our digital ones, we risk losing genuine connection for a vision of “perfection.” In a world where boats and cars are lovingly given names and square blocks of cell phone screen are caressed constantly, this loss doesn’t seem so far-fetched. We are becoming more and more like machines.

After reading the first half of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I have gained a holistic understanding of the pros and cons of “robots.” I have turned pages filled with lines about technological obsession while sitting outside in the hot summer sun. I have lamented the potential loss of the genuine relationships, while reveling in the dream-like possibility of robots that could deliver medication quickly and easily to my grandparents at home and keep them out of hospitals with draining waiting rooms and human chaos. I have come to the conclusion that robots should not be dismissed as “bad,” but that they should not be used to replace human beings. We need to work with technology rather than be overcome by it. As I embark on the second half of Turkle’s book, I can only imagine that the questions and nuances will continue to unfold.

(Because this post can’t cover everything that Turkle’s book has provoked, I have attached my  Summer Research Notes with key points and quotations from the reading thus far… just in case you’re interested in hearing a few more anecdotes and specific questions)

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