Robot Love

Imagine that you could order up a robotic boyfriend or girlfriend. Would you do it?

According to Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies the social impacts of science and technology, more people than ever are answering "yes" to this (still hypothetical) question. After all, human partners are fallible; they disappoint; they get angry and distracted. Robot mates, on the other hand, are endlessly attentive to our needs. They have no other demands on their time and attention. We cannot frustrate or disappoint them. They require no risk and no compromise.

At least, this is how we imagine them. You can't wander into RadioShack and walk out with a robot companion--not yet, and probably not for a while. But Turkle fears that we're getting closer to the day when robots will be able to meet these most human needs--and, more terrifying, when we will be happy to let them.

Here at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Turkle (who was also featured in NOVA scienceNOW's segment on social robots) declared that we have arrived at this "robotic moment not because we have built robots worthy of our company, but because we are ready for theirs." Researchers are currently testing bots that can help teach and tend to children and that can provide care for the sick, the disabled, and the elderly. But the real headline, according to Turkle, isn't rapidly-advanced robotics: It's that humans now accept or even yearn for the day when robots will be fully integrated into caregiving roles that were once considered uniquely human.

The PARO robot, which looks like a baby seal, has been used in therapeutic settings to improve the well-being of patients with Alzheimer's and other types of dementia.

Turkle has been studying human perceptions of robots since the 1980s and argues that she's witnessed a dramatic change over the past three and a half decades. The robots of the 1980s, she says, inspired us to place heightened value on the qualities that make us human: the ability to feel, to love, to grieve. Now she sees this romantic view on the decline. Today, when it comes to our most intimate relationships, fallibility is liability, not a tie that binds.

But are we really ready to forge these bonds with bots? Turkle cites the emergence of robo-pets like the Aibo dog as evidence that we are replacing living relationships with artificial ones. Parents once bought pets in part to teach their children about the cycle of life and death, says Turkle; now, these same parents are relived to choose instead an of-the-shelf pet that will never get sick and never die.

A promotional video for Sony's robotic pet Aibo

Yet it isn't clear that dog-lovers are turning out in droves to replace their flesh-and-fur mutts with metal and plastic. In fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association reports that (live) pet ownership has increased steadily since their first surveys in 1986, showing a dip only recently, a decline that is more likely due to the poor economy than the allure of robo-dogs. Indeed, Sony's Aibo, often considered the first consumer robo-pet, was reported to have sold fewer than 100,000 units worldwide in its first three years on the market, and it was discontinued in 2006. Meanwhile, there are 70 million pet dogs in the United States alone. These pets may be demanding--they need to be fed, watered, walked, and scooped-up after--yet we keep bringing them into our homes and even calling them family.

Will Turkle's dark vision of our future come to pass? I don't know. The technologies that have transformed our lives most dramatically are those that promise to enhance our human connections: Facebook allows us to keep up with friends and family in an encyclopedic play-by-play. Our go-anywhere mobile phones let us stay in touch with anyone, from anywhere--you can even videochat from the ladies' room, if that's your thing. These technologies may be exasperating, yet they--not robots like Aibo--are the innovations that have become ubiquitous.

What do you think? Are you dreaming of the day when you and your robo-spouse will spend the afternoon romping with your robo-dog? When you will be cared for in times of sickness by a robo-nurse and your children tended by a nannybot? Or will you choose to take your chances on other human beings?

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