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The “dark heart” of human-robot companionship

Professor Sherry Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, has studied the psychology of human interactions with computational artifacts since the 1970s. In the nascent years of the 21st century, she argues, society has reached a “Robotic Moment.” This crossroads is defined not by the actual manufacture of relational robots, but by the fact many in Western society—particularly parents and eldercare providers—are ready to take these sociable robots into their homes and geriatric centers, allowing them to live with and talk to their children and the elderly as friends, companions, and mentors. While robotic eldercare in America is definitely in the experimental stages, the situation of eldercare robots in Japan, for example, is much more advanced. Twenty-five years ago, the Japanese government projected a shortage of young people who would care for the elderly; to solve this difficulty, the Japanese decided against using immigrants or foreigners as caregivers and opted, instead, to employ sociable robots. This is the time, Turkle insists, to discuss the wisdom of robotic companionship for our kids and elders, before it becomes the new normal.

Toward that end, Turkle and this essay raise questions that lay bare the “dark heart” of human-robot companionship: Why don’t we all care that, when we allow children and seniors to pursue human-robot conversations with the promise of empathetic connection, we encourage them to pursue a psychological fantasy with an unhappy trajectory? Why don’t we think our kids and elderly deserve better than artificial emotional relationships? Why don’t we humans, instead of asking more of robotics, ask more of ourselves when it comes to caring for our children and our elderly?

Meet the Robots, and Human-Robot Interaction studies

The simplified precursors to “Kismet” and “Cog”

Relational artifacts include complex research robots such as Kismet and Cog (to which we’ll be introduced presently), as well as a variety of objects that have found their way into the retail world: humanoid dolls, virtual creatures, and robotic pets. These computational machines are called “relational” since, with differing levels of sophistication, they not only give the user the impression they want to be cared for and to have their “needs” satisfied, but also that they are grateful when the user appropriately nurtures them.

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