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Claudia Ricci Headshot

Humans Mating Machines? Maybe I'm Robo-Phobic...

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The notion had never occurred to me. Not even for a moment. But now I see how I might be ROBO-PHOBIC. Yes, it's possible. People will be mating machines and I'm not going for it.

And no, it's not too far in the future.

If you think it's crazy, pick up psychologist Sherry Turkle's fascinating new book, Alone Together, a startling exploration of the way digital technology and the fast-changing field of robotics are turning emotional connections among humans upside down.

Turkle, an MIT professor and the author of two previous books on the relationship between humans and computer culture, recounts a conversation that she says "stunned" her. It sure as heck shocked me.

A reporter for Scientific American phoned to interview her about the future of robots. Turkle writes, "... he accused me of harboring sentiments that would put me squarely in the camp of those who have for so long stood in the way of marriage for homosexual couples...The reporter was bothered because I had objected to the mating and marriage of people to robots."

So there you go. Turkle is ROBO-PHOBIC too.

What's the appeal in marrying a machine? I mean, truly, why would anyone choose to love a robot?

A second encounter of Turkle's brings the reasoning into clearer focus. Turkle describes meeting a grad student at a psychology conference in New Orleans. The student, "Anne, a lovely, raven-haired woman in her mid-twenties," told Turkle point blank that she would "trade in her boyfriend 'for a sophisticated Japanese robot' if the robot would produce what she called 'caring behavior.'"

In other words, Anne wanted companionship. But she would gladly give up the messy details of one of those old-fashioned, one-on-one, fall-in-love kinds of things -- a union with somebody who has a beating heart, skin, eyes that tear, a nose that runs. That sort of thing.

Turkle thought the young woman was joking. She wasn't. "She was looking for a 'no-risk relationship' that would stave off loneliness. A responsive robot, even one just exhibiting scripted behavior, seemed better to her than a demanding boyfriend."

At first Turkle's message seems shocking -- our computers and our cell phones and our incessant connectivity and networking on digital devices are warping us, making us more comfortable dealing with machines than with flesh and blood others. We are all cyborgs now, she declares, and the price we are paying is high: "Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone."

But then again, when I stop and think, why am I surprised by her insights? I sit here writing this morning side by side with my husband. We are sitting up in bed, each of us working rather furiously on our laptops.

Our machines have become our constant and reliable companions. We are, in Turkle's words, "tethered." Our intimacy with our wired "devices" grows and grows. Checking our email, our Facebook pages, our texts, our IM chats, gives us comfort. Reassures us. Distracts us. The machines bring us the world and our loved ones and our liked ones and an endless stream of information and entertainment packaged precisely the way we want to receive it.

It's a slippery slope, this extreme intimacy with electronics. Where are we headed? Where are we already? Turkle describes a sophisticated "therapeutic robot" -- one manufactured by the Japanese in the shape of a baby harp seal -- that is in use to ease the loneliness of a senior named Miriam. The older woman finds enormous solace petting the seal's soft fur.

So think about it. There you are. Alone. Craving a companion. Somebody you can really talk to. You're tired of the dating scene. And then you see an ad for a sociable robot.

Roxxxy, the world's first sex robot, was introduced in January 2010. "Roxxxy cannot move, although it has electronically warmed skin and internal organs that pulse." Ironically, Turkle points out, Roxxxy's creator stresses the fact that the sex bot offers conversation!

Turkle has a fascinating book here. She shows us how our technology is taking over, changing our relationships and our very "selves" in profound ways. Machines are making us less comfortable with humans. Machines are making young people highly wary of direct connection.

Indeed, in one revealing example that struck home with me, she mentions that teenagers these days don't spend hours on the phone yacking to friends, the way my own teenagers did just a few years ago.

Today, texting has taken over. Texting "puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance." Profound, this change, as Turkle points out, as our young people "take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay."

I recall a student sitting in my office at Georgetown a couple years ago. Eric, a very pleasant and personable young man, had his laptop open. We were chatting about this and that when he told me that he'd been having lunch with a friend. Both of them had their laptops open. And at one point they looked up at each other and acknowledged the obvious: they would just as soon have been talking to each other by machine.

I'm putting the laptop away now. I am going to turn to my husband and look in his eyes and tell him how much I love him. And how glad I am that he is not now, or ever, going to be a machine.