I, robot, take you, hu­man . . .

Are we get­ting too close to our technology?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Jane Smi­ley is the author of “Pri­vate Life,” “The Man Who In­vented the Com­puter” and many other books. book­world@wash­post.com

In “Why the West Rules, for Now,” his ex­cel­lent and amus­ing sur­vey of the past 70,000 years or so of hu­man his­tory, Ian Mor­ris dis­cusses an event we can look for­ward to in 2045: the Sin­gu­lar­ity, “ef­fec­tively merg­ing car­bon-and-sil­i­con based in­tel­li­gence into a sin­gle global con­scious­ness. . . . We will tran­scend bi­ol­ogy, evolv­ing into a new, merged be­ing as far ahead of homo sapi­ens as a con­tem­po­rary hu­man is of the in­di­vid­ual cells that merge to cre­ate his or her body.” With 35 years to go, we now have Sherry Turkle’s “Alone To­gether” as a progress re­port from the biotech­no­log­i­cal front lines. And it is not amus­ing.

Turkle is a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cally trained psy­chol­o­gist at MIT who has spe­cial­ized for years in study­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and its ef­fect on hu­mans who in­vent it, use it and en­joy it. Her new book con­sid­ers ro­bots, Face­book, iPhones and the In­ter­net, and ex­plores ques­tions per­ti­nent to each. Since the 1980s, she has made good use of her ac­cess to the fore­most thinkers in the AI world, and she has de­vised ex­per­i­ments for ob­serv­ing how peo­ple of all ages — most in­struc­tively chil­dren and the el­derly — in­ter­act with and re­late to ma­chines that in some ways mimic how hu­mans or an­i­mals act, think and talk. “Alone To­gether” is not sta­tis­ti­cal, it is anec­do­tal. It is there­fore vivid, even lurid, in its de­pic­tions of where we are headed, but the reader comes away un­sure whether Turkle’s anx­i­eties are war­ranted.

It is clear through­out that a new technology has a cost and a mo­men­tum that are never con­sid­ered when that technology is in­tro­duced — trac­tors looked eas­ier than plows, iPhones seem more con­ve­nient than land­lines. Only long af­ter each in­no­va­tion is in­tro­duced do hu­mans bother to pon­der things such as soil ero­sion or tex­ting while driv­ing. Decades af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion of the In­ter­net and of AI, Turkle is be­gin­ning to have sec­ond thoughts. She fo­cuses first on ro­bots: Hu­mans are de­ter­mined to re­late to them. No mat­ter how old or young the hu­mans are, no mat­ter how so­phis­ti­cated in their ex­pe­ri­ence of AI, they be­gin to have feel­ings for ro­bots they come in con­tact with and to feel that their feel­ings are re­cip­ro­cated. A me­chan­i­cal ques­tion elic­its an an­swer, large painted eyes elicit com­pas­sion, a metal­lic touch elic­its a re­spond­ing touch, and the emo­tions that go along with hu­man re­sponses can­not be con­trolled. Turkle does not in­clude pic­tures of the ro­bots she men­tions, but look­ing at them on the In­ter­net af­ter read­ing about them is dis­ori­ent­ing — surely that is not Kis­met, the pro­to­type robotic girl­friend that many of Turkle’s sub­jects are at­tracted to? But it is.

A robot in the room, act­ing an­i­mated and in­ter­ested, draws us out of our­selves, but so­cial net­work­ing tends to push us apart, Turkle says, be­cause hu­mans on the In­ter­net be­have (or can be­have or are pushed to be­have) in­hu­manely. The In­ter­net gives peo­ple the cover to in­dulge in hate speech, to present phony per­sonas or sim­ply to avoid re­lat­ing in real space and time.

Turkle’s sub­ject is so vast that she can­not ad­dress ev­ery facet of it. The missing facet that struck me as a nov­el­ist is that ev­ery robot and ev­ery net­work­ing app is a work of art, de­signed to ex­press the psy­che of the artist and to shape the re­sponse of the user. We are not en­tirely un­versed in re­spond­ing to things that don’t ex­ist— Odysseus, Mac­beth and the woman por­trayed in the Mona Lisa don’t ex­ist, ei­ther. We could say that when we read “David Cop­per­field,” we agree to a join­ing of minds that is plea­sur­able and en­light­en­ing, and that as we read and ex­pe­ri­ence many works of art, we clar­ify the bound­aries be­tween each one and be­tween art and our­selves. Turkle’s re­search sub­jects are at the very be­gin­ning of the next phase of the hu­man jour­ney. It may be that we will gain self-knowl­edge from our ex­pe­ri­ence that we can’t yet imag­ine.

For those who re­coil, though, Ian Mor­ris has an al­ter­na­tive — the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tion. He makes a good case that mankind has ap­proached cli­mate/en­ergy/pop­u­la­tion ceil­ings be­fore and that break­through is less likely than self-de­struc­tion; in fact, the meld­ing of hu­man and ma­chine in­tel­li­gence may be our only sal­va­tion. Turkle doesn’t pon­der this is­sue, but when you read her en­gross­ing study, you will.

By Sherry Turkle Ba­sic. 360 pp. $28.95

ALONE TO­GETHER Why We Ex­pect More From Technology and Less From Each Other

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