A delight to read, this scholarly yet readable book provides a psychological and anthropological analysis of what I have noticed going on around me. It is divided into two parts: robots as companions and caregivers, and the omnipresent electronic virtualization of social interactions, especially among the young. Each part is divided into chapters, and each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of the part’s theme and features many case studies of groups and individuals for illustration. The stories are well chosen and all are worth reading.
The first part begins with a brief history of ELIZA, the computer program that mimicked a Rogerian psychotherapist. Later, artificial pets such as Tamaguchi, Furby, and AIBO elicited bonding with their owners, much like real cats and dogs. Research continues on robots that appear more or less human and display emotional affectations so that they can interact in a human-like manner. All of these robots are uncanny in their ability to bring humans to a point where they might project emotive character to the robot and perceive that a relationship of some sort may exist.
The ultimate question in Part 1 is the use of human-like robots as companions and caregivers. There are a number of psychological and ethical questions to be dealt with. Will the intended beneficiary perceive the robot as a mere electromechanical device or as a quasi-person? Will it be a “better than nothing” or a “better than anything” situation? Are human beings isolating themselves and delegating caring responsibilities to a mere device? Will there be an emotional bonding of the sort that can arise between people?
Turkle is reluctant to commit to the use of robots as exclusive or even principal caregivers. In her discussion of the use of robots for elderly care, she quotes a group of children: “Don’t we have people for these jobs?” Considering the job’s wages and the working conditions, there may not be. Japan has a rapidly aging population that will need care, but there are fewer young people available to do the work; this will also be the case in Europe and North America. Funds for ordinary elderly care such as pensions and regular medical services are often targeted for cutting. Who is going to pay? Only wealthy people will be able to afford to hire human caregivers. Other ethical questions arise in expecting family members to assume the stress of providing 24/7 care. A robot can provide 24/7 care without succumbing to stress. The capital investment in a robot is much less expensive than the continuing cost of hiring people for round-the-clock care.
The second part of the book is on the virtualization of social interaction through electronic media. There are claims that the continual use of electronic media changes the brain and nervous system on a physiological level. There are also social, anthropological, and psychological changes that are more difficult to pin down to specific locations in the brain. The students interviewed in the book have no concept of solitude, except perhaps to fear it. They need constant contact in order to form their own opinions or even have emotional responses. My own university freshman students told me that they easily send 200 text messages per day, most of them trivial. There is heavy emotional involvement in technology--for example, when a local cell phone provider had an outage, one student said he was “terrified.”
Turkle reports that students use technology as a filter. Cell phones are infrequently used for ordinary conversations--the immediacy of a telephone conversation requires focused attention and an immediate response. Instead, a text message or Facebook posting can be juggled among other tasks, and time can be given to composing a response. They are constantly in touch with each other while remaining behind a screen, and it is possible to have 950 Facebook friends and yet not know one genuine friend.
I was surprised when I had a group project assignment during class time. I dispersed the groups around the classroom, hoping that the hubbub of discussion in one group would not interfere with whatever was taking place in another group. Instead of conversation there was silence. Students sitting right next to each other were sending and receiving text messages. Perhaps they were pertinent to the classwork, however the quality of the final projects was low. With conversation, discussion, and debate, one is required to focus on both the task at hand and his or her colleagues.
This outstanding book is a must-read.