Wednesday, February 02, 2011

alone together

WaPo | In "Why the West Rules, For Now," his excellent and amusing survey of the last 70,000 years or so of human history, Ian Morris discusses an event we can look forward to in 2045: the Singularity, "effectively merging carbon-and-silicon based intelligence into a single global consciousness. . . . We will transcend biology, evolving into a new, merged being as far ahead of homo sapiens as a contemporary human is of the individual cells that merge to create his or her body." With 35 years to go, we now have Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together" as a progress report from the biotechnological front lines. And it is not amusing.

Turkle is a psychoanalytically trained psychologist at MIT who has specialized for years in studying artificial intelligence and its effect on humans who invent it, use it and enjoy it. Her new book considers robots, Facebook, iPhones and the Internet, and explores questions pertinent to each. Since the 1980s, she has made good use of her access to the foremost thinkers in the AI world, and she has devised experiments for observing how people of all ages - most instructively children and the elderly - interact with and relate to machines that in some ways mimic how humans or animals act, think and talk. "Alone Together" is not statistical, it is anecdotal. It is therefore vivid, even lurid, in its depictions of where we are headed, but the reader comes away unsure whether Turkle's anxieties are warranted.

It is clear throughout that a new technology has a cost and a momentum that are never considered when that technology is introduced - tractors looked easier than plows, iPhones seem more convenient than landlines. Only long after each innovation is introduced do humans bother to ponder things like soil erosion or texting while driving. Decades after the introduction of the Internet and of AI, Turkle is beginning to have second thoughts. She focuses first on robots: humans are determined to relate to them. No matter how old or young the humans are, no matter how sophisticated in their experience of AI, they begin to have feelings for robots they come in contact with and to feel that their feelings are reciprocated. A mechanical question elicits an answer, large painted eyes elicit compassion, a metallic touch elicits a responding touch, and the emotions that go along with human responses cannot be controlled. Turkle does not include pictures of the robots she mentions, but looking at them on the Internet after reading about them is disorienting - surely that is not Kismet, the prototype robotic girlfriend that many of Turkle's subjects are attracted to? But it is.

A robot in the room, acting animated and interested, draws us out of ourselves, but social networking tends to push us apart, Turkle says, because humans on the Internet behave (or can behave or are pushed to behave) inhumanely. The Internet gives people the cover to indulge in hate speech, to present phony personas, or simply to avoid relating in real space and time.

Turkle's subject is so vast that she cannot address every facet of it, and of course the missing facet that struck me as a novelist is that every robot and every networking app is a work of art, designed to express the psyche of the artist and to shape the response of the user. We are not entirely unversed in responding to things that don't exist - Odysseus, Macbeth and the woman portrayed in the Mona Lisa don't exist, either. We could say that when we read "David Copperfield," we agree to a joining of minds that is pleasurable and enlightening, and that as we read and experience many works of art, we clarify the boundaries between each one and between art and ourselves. Turkle's research subjects are at the very beginning of the next phase of the human journey. It may be that we will gain self-knowledge from our experience that we can't yet imagine.

For those who recoil, though, Ian Morris has an alternative - the collapse of civilization. He makes a good case that mankind has approached climate/energy/population ceilings before and that breakthrough is less likely than self-destruction; in fact, the melding of human and machine intelligence may be our only salvation. Turkle doesn't ponder this issue, but when you read her engrossing study, you will.


nanakwame said...

Interesting I was reading this yesterday, Note the term cyberutopians, red flag for me, and I do recall folks talking about Techies leading the world, hmmmm

“We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies,” says Sherry Turkle in her latest book on our relationship with technology, Alone Together, “yet we have allowed them to diminish us.” In this beautifully written, provocative and worrying book, Turkle, a professor at MIT, a clinical psychologist and, perhaps, the world’s leading expert on the social and psychological effects of technology, argues that internet use has as much power to isolate and destroy relationships as it has to bring us together.

Social networks and online communications, Turkle posits, offer such a pleasing simulation of social contact that we commonly mistake it for the real thing. “Virtual places offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment ... People know this, and yet the emotional charge on cyberspace is high. People talk about digital life as ‘the place for hope’, the place where something new will come to them. In the past, one waited for the sound of the post – by carriage, by foot, by truck. Now, when there is a lull, we check our e-mail, texts and messages.”

The compound effect of all these online relationships – the massive global interconnectivity so loved by the cyberutopians – is that “networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone”. The quality of the interaction is the emotional equivalent of junk food; it may fill you up but it hardly nourishes…
Our relationship with it may be becoming increasingly dependent but it’s up to us to learn how to live, and prosper, together.

Ben Hammersley is editor at large of Wired magazine and head of digital at Spring, an international design firm

CNu said...

the key is to cook for one another, take meals together as a family, and play games together as a family- then the DARPANet is confined to its proper perspective..., with 20 inches of snow on the ground and work and school shut down, me and the little boy are listening to his current musical rotation (SIMPLY AWFUL...,) and watching/listening to the Al Jazeera live feed from Tahrir square, and playing chit chat with correspondents all over the country and the world.

nanakwame said...

Lucky Doc, at work - one of the advantage of mass transportation.

CNu said...

So is this a nod to conservative tropes about family, family values, and all the rest? i.e., is it the case that a robust nuclear family comprises a bulwark as against the potential addictive and relationally distorting aspects of the technology, or, is it perhaps the case that suggestible/susceptible folk will always be at risk in the presence of dopaminergic distractions, i.e., gambling, liquor, sex, etc...?

{my wife (absorbed in some or another tweek and doink at on her android/laptop) and my children (busily facebooking on their androids/laptops) have the nerve and audacity to look sideways at me about dialoguing with strangers in the blogosphere - referring to it as my "blog addiction" } can you believe that?!?!

nanakwame said...

LOL maybe you need one of those new intimate machines for conversation; Lawyers are preparing legal contracts now. just messing with you LOL

CNu said...

Nah Nana, I just need for you cats to move to KC, rehabilitate the beer fridge in the basement and setup a swipe card access control system on the back door, issue you cats key cards so that you can come through, hang out, and talk about current events...,

nanakwame said...

You never know, does one LOL

ProfGeo said...

Hey, this one was interesting AND readable. Rare combination.


ProfGeo said...

By the time I checked in with younger family members (who don't live with me) about "dialoguing with strangers" online they'd already been dialoguing for a couple years w/ little adult supervision. They are older now, occasionally willing to talk directly or even a regular phone call. But still, Village of the Damned , the movie. :-)