Sherry Turkle’s memoir, The Empathy Diaries, was published recently and I bought it as soon as I heard about it. She has spent nearly all of her professional career studying the human-robot interaction. She is the one who, in Alone Together, reported on the children to whom MIT has given little playmate robots for a little while. The language the children chose was that the robots were “alive enough” to do the things they liked to do with them.
There are lots of things wrong with “alive enough” as a standard of being, but you can see how it solved the problem for the kids. They know that the robots are not “alive” in the way people are. On the other hand, it is very hard for them to use words like “not alive” or “dead” or “inert” or “insensate” of cherished companions. This dilemma pushed them to innovation. The robots have a place on the “scale” of aliveness. Alive and Dead are not binary positions for these kids.
I’ve been a fan of Turkle’s ever since. Her mostly engineer colleagues at MIT think of her as a conservative. I think of her as a humanist. Robots, she says, “perform empathy.” Humans “have” empathy.
That is a powerful point, but it is more subtle than it first appears. How do we know that humans experience empathy? Well, they act as if they understand us and our situation. We infer, therefore, that they can imagine being in our “place.” If they do it badly, we judge that they do not really have empathy, but are only performing it. And badly, too. But AI robots are performing it better and better all the time. They “seem to care.” We respond as if they do care, even when we know better.
Now we come to the crucial point. If AI empathy is done better and is more reliable, why would we not prefer it to human empathy–what we used to call “real empathy?” I say it is the crucial point because in the first instance we said that human empathy is real and robot “empathy” is not. Now the point is that if empathy is empathy and if robots do it better, we have every reason to prefer them.
Turkle’s argument is that performed “empathy” is not really empathy no matter how good it is. But that is hard for us. We tend to prefer “the experience” to “the reality:” in cases where they are not the same. This puts what we feel( it understands me) in conflict with what we know (it has been programmed to seem to understand me). It requires us to put an abstract understanding ahead of an immediate pleasure.
Turkle’s approach to the problem is to spend more time being ourselves. It is not hard to see the damage we do to ourselves by being online all the time. The new electronic access we have to each other makes it easier to stay “connected” but being really together is another thing entirely. “Connected” is a kind of being in touch that lets us surf from one person to another, avoiding three kinds of difficulties: people we don’t like, traits we don’t like (even in people we do like) and quiet time when nothing at all is going on.
Turkle says we need those things in order to be who we are. The constant connection is just a distraction from spending time with ourselves. She values “solitude” in which we are alone but not lonely. I follow her argument without any difficulty so long as she is describing how busy we are and how endlessly in touch. I get it that doing those things doesn’t do for us what needs to be done, but I still think that choosing what is real will require rejecting what is merely performed which will mean choosing the mix of pleasant and unpleasant over the completely positive.
We will need to have confidence in “who we really are” in relationship in order to reject what is merely performed and to affirm what is real–and maybe not quite to affirming. That confidence will be born in relationships we invest in; not those we collapse into. Wanting that kind of contact as urgently as we will need to will be necessary if we are to keep ourselves separate from the increasingly competent robots that are available.
“Alive enough” is not going to save us forever. Hating robots is not going to save us at all. We are going to have to learn to value and to prefer who we really are. It’s not a job for Superman. It’s a job for us.