“Alone Together” – Sherry Turkle

mickyates ideas, Innovation, leadership, Technology Leave a Comment

Alone TogetherI am currently reading Sherry Turkle‘s book “Alone Together“. It is a fascinating look at the looming debate over Human – Robot interaction. Robots are no longer toys (not just Furbys, AIBOs or My Real Babies), and people are forming interesting and sometimes intense connections with them.

Turkle has much experience on the issue, after many years of serious research at MIT, and offers great insight. She is not “against robots” who help make life easier and is in fact very pro-robot. But she is concerned about the impact of advanced, human-like robots on humans at the psychological level.

Central to Turkle’s case is the importance of real intimacy as essential to being human. And yet, in a world of reduced privacy (e.g. does Facebook and technology in general kill our privacy), is real intimacy likely to decline even before we have humanoid robots? Is technology and our increasingly virtual life running away with us before we can tackle the complex ethical and social issues posed to our definition of being human?

Consider Turkle’s example of a young woman who texted to her friend behind a closed door to ask if it was OK to enter. She considered that more polite than knocking, by all accounts. Are we putting tech barriers unknowingly between us – or are we using technology to form closer human bonds? Are we changing the definition of being human?

Here’s an extract from a NY Times review of her book:

“In 1995, Sherry Turkle, a professor of the “social studies of science” at M.I.T., published a book about identity in the digital age called “Life on the Screen.” It was a mostly optimistic account …

In Turkle’s latest book, “Alone Together,” this optimism is long gone. If the Internet of 1995 was a postmodern playhouse, allowing individuals to engage in unbridled expression, Turkle describes it today as a corporate trap, a ball and chain that keeps us tethered to the tiny screens of our cellphones, tapping out trite messages to stay in touch. She summarizes her new view of things with typical eloquence:

We expect more from technology and less from each other.

Why is this a “Leadership Issue”? Besides the obvious, that innovation and change is the business of a Leader, the social impacts of technology must be understood and dealt with head-on by today’s Leaders. You might not tweet, but Leaders had better understand the implications. And you might not have a robot today, but one day robots might be part of your team …

There are other views on Human – Robot interaction, and even “marriage”. Some people think that almost inevitable, such as David Levy, one time chess master, CEO of a company that makes robots for children, and author of “Love, Sex and Robots“.


And consider the work of Douglas Hines of True Companion, the manufacturer of Roxxxy, billed as the world’s first Sex Robot. It is hard to say lonely people shouldn’t have comfort, but are there lines to be drawn? I guess it could be seen as a logical next step from on-line porn sites, but, to me, Roxxxy seems to cross a new boundary.

Enter this site with care, by the way.

Remember the Turing test – in which Alan Turing suggested that Artificial Intelligence occurred at the point when people conversing with a machine did not know whether it was machine or human.

Well, Freedom Baird of MIT has a new test – when is a creature deemed “alive”. The answer is based on holding a barbie doll, a Furby and a live gerbil upside down. Most people don’t care about the barbie – and can’t hurt the gerbil. But after about 30 seconds of listening to the the cries of an upset upside down Furby saying “me scared”, they stop the “torture”. They treat the Furby as though it is alive.

How, indeed, will we discriminate about what is human as technology evolves? Or maybe we won’t even care ..

A fascinating subject, and a great read.

Here’s a video of Sherry Turkle courtesy of Authors@Google

And here’s a link to the original video