Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Mechanical Bride

I was interviewed the other day about robots for the radio show Open Source, produced by Public Radio International and University of Massachusetts at Lowell. You can hear the show, including me, on their web site ( in case you did not hear it on your local NPR station Feb 28).

The topic of discussion for the show was whether the rising population of personal robots is bad for us. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist from MIT, started the conversation with a description of her idea of our dangerous path. She is concerned that if we form relationships with robots – which, to her, are not ‘real’ relationships – then will we lose our ability to tell the difference between a ‘real’ relationship and an artificial one. (Artificial Relationship, AR) She is worried that spending time with robots will rot our moral foundations and sap us of our humanity.

From the discussion and the comments posted on the Open Source blog it seems that there are not many who share her trepidation.

But, Dr. Turkle has written a few books on the subject of identity and computer technology and has studied deeply how we interact with our creations. I think we should take her warning seriously and recognize that we must surrender ourselves to our technology in order to take full efficient advantage of what it has to offer. We should be aware of the side-effects.

However, I do not agree with her concern that robots are more of a threat to our humanity than other technologies. We are a technological society and robots are just one example.
Marshall McLuhan speaks about how we should look at our creations changing ourselves. He pointed out back in the 1950’s that we have moved beyond where we can stop the process. We are already committed - in this case to robot technology. It holds danger but also tremendous promise. It is not a simple task to navigate around all of the possible negative consequences but as McLuhan says, “moral indignation is a very poor guide.”

There will be many changes in the years to come. Remember to keep you eyes open.
Recognize the unease you feel when some condescending robot scolds you for not knowing proper procedures then flirts with the person next to you. But remember it’s just a robot.


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