Relational artifacts

In a small seminar Sherry Turkle spoke of her work on relational artifacts: devices that present as having a mind of their own so as to inspire an emotional and nurturing response in humans. What are the societal implications when children become dependent on them, or we use them to keep the folks in nursing homes happy? Is machine presence preferable to loneliness? Yes, it might be better if we talked to children about the bumpiness of human friendships (e.g. learning to share) and the cycle of life (e.g. a biological pet’s death), or provide real companionship, support, and community to elders, but absent that, are robots okay?

Turkle refuses to answer this question as stated and challenges the assumptions as a matter of principle – she also recommends that machines acts like machines, but what this means is also problematic.

Yet, if we do attempt to answer the question directly, it reduces to the problem of the “happy box.” If Tyrell Corporation could manufacture a box to which one could plug-in and become contentful, should we permit it? This is a massively complex and interesting question, the subject of much science fiction and anime stories, and even encountered in the question of should Buddha have taken Prozac?

In the end, as in anything, I suppose it comes down to the personal choice of consenting individuals and society should maintain a commitment to make the real world a worthy alternative to simulated bliss.

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