In her book, Turkle (2017) vividly recalls her experience of introducing the sociable robot ‘Furby’ to a playgroup, as she states:
“…the children make it clear, that the Furby is a machine but alive enough to need care” (p.36)
The endearing and unique appearance of each Furby, along with their baby-like dependence on the user, meant that the playgroup didn’t need to search for long before finding life hidden behind its glass eyes. As an innate response to this apparent need for attention, Turkle observes as the children became increasingly attached, projecting their own life experiences and emotional understandings onto the machine, in attempt to decode its sentiment. McLuhan (1964) argues for this phenomenon to extend far beyond the realm of children’s toys, by claiming that ‘all media are fragments of ourselves, extended (onto) the public domain (p.266).
If this is indeed so, has our emotional attachment to machines and the life we envision hiding behind their mechanical cogs, redefining our perception of what it means to be alive?
Moving onto discussions of adult-oriented products, the social companion robot, Buddy, demonstrates strong emotive capacity through its interactive and ‘friendly’ exterior. By imitating complex human emotions such as anger and sadness, Buddy demands care from its human companions in exchange for the services that it provides. What’s more, devices as prevalent as the Amazon Echo exhibit an appeal to connect with human emotions. Through ‘expressive light’ displays, the device evokes subtle emotional responses in users whilst ‘(conveying) informational states’ (Kunchay et al, 2019, p. 263).
So what implications does this have on our own empathic capacity? Some argue that our growing dependency on emotion-enabled AI is in fact ‘(enhancing) our humanity and empathy for each other’ by providing us a space to feel heard, while encouraging us to enact positive social behaviours with other humans.
However, Turkle (2017) argues that by categorising machines as a part of the ‘living’ world, we supplement necessary real-world interactions, whilst diminishing our own capacity to empathise with other perspectives. Kohut (2009) contributes to this frame of thought by conceptualising the machine as a ‘selfobject’ of sorts, through its ability to mirror the user’s own persona and reflect it back to them (p. 49).
The blurring boundaries between the human and machine, also appears to be impacting our perception of what it means to be human, as we begin to view ourselves as “the first and most immediate technological tool” (Fortunati et al, 2003, p.62). Turkle’s conversational account with an 8-year-old child, reinforces this understanding, as she discusses the child’s attachment towards the Furby, which led her to believe that there ‘(was) a screw in (her) belly button’ too (p.37).
It appears, that our search for humanity in machine, has simultaneously invited us to consider ourselves as increasingly machine.
In the words of Warwick (2016), is humankind on the verge of beginning a new chapter as the ‘posthuman species homo technologicus’ (p.199)?
Time will surely tell.
BUDDY, The Emotional Robot [@buddyrobotics]. (2019, September 23). In 2019, the Consumer Technology Association released a study that shows an almost universal enthusiasm for consumer robotics (87 %). Yes, consumers are excited and ready. Check the three Critical Factors that Make a Personal Robot Successful. Link in the bio. #robotcompanion #buddy #LoveBuddy #emotionalrobot [Instagram photo]. Retrieved from: https://www.instagram.com/p/B2woCauopVz/
Fortunati, L., Katz, J. E., & Riccini, R. (Eds.). (2003). Mediating the human body: technology, communication, and fashion. Routledge.
Kohut, H. (2009). How does analysis cure?. University of Chicago Press.
Kunchay, S., Wang, S., & Abdullah, S. (2019, November). Investigating Users’ Perceptions of Light Behaviors in Smart-Speakers. In Conference Companion Publication of the 2019 on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (pp. 262–266).
McLuhan, M. (1964). The medium is the message.
The New Yorker. (2008, May 12). “Man’s Best Friend,” by Dan Clowes [Image]. The New Yorker. URL: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12
Turkle, S. (2017). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Hachette UK.
Warwick, K. (2016). Homo Technologicus: Threat or Opportunity?. Philosophies, 1(3), 199–208.
Webster. T. (2018). Red ring on Amazon Echo Dot — Alexa Device [Image]. Flickr Viewer. URL: https://flickrviewer.com/post/87296837@N00/31501674177
World Economic Forum. (2017, November 12). Relax: empathetic robots will make your life so much easier [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/11/artificial-empathy-will-make-us-better-human-beings/