MIT Professor Sherry Turkle has interviewed a lot of people who say they’re ready for robot mates, robot care givers and robot friends. Is this because they’re lonely and believe having a robot around would be better than no company at all? No. They expect robots to be easy to get along with and would prefer having that kind of company around the house over the human kind.
Robots won’t argue, strew their clothes around the bedroom, or raid your refrigerator. They can be programmed to sound like they have feelings, and can have many more experiences coded into them than any single person has collected, which might make them better than relatives at giving advice.
Turkle considers the emergence of likable robots (think popular children’s toys) along with a change in how we communicate — texting (impersonal) vs. telephoning (personal) — and wonders if we’re expecting less and less from human encounters. (This is very simplified. See her book, “Alone Together,” for more.)
It’s true that many in my generation prefer email to telephone, partly because it’s efficient. In my case, texting takes too long because my fingers always miss the right letters on my phone keypad. But I don’t think we’re expecting less from encounters with people we know.
I was flying high all last week because of the help I received from members of my personal networks, all of them humans. I had to do research for my novel, research that Google and Bing were not equipped to help me with. As I pondered how to find the information I needed, I went through my mental Rolodex of the friends and acquaintances I’ve made over my life.
Who could tell me about the inner workings of a TV news room? That would be a woman who served on the same non-profit board as I did. I need answers to questions about immigration detention and bail bonds. No problem here. Talk to two friends whose work calls for them to know about immigration and jails. Where can I speak to an adult with Down Syndrome? That’s easy. The guy who colors my hair has offered to set up an appointment with his sister. And so on down my list of questions and people who could address them.
I did my research over lunch, drinks, via email, and in a hair salon. I looked forward to each interview, as well as the opportunity to reconnect with friends, and was thrilled with how much I learned.
Am I old-fashioned? Yes. You can’t get older and not resist change, and some things from your past will always seem better. Expecting less from person-to-person encounters? Not at all. Retirement can be isolating without these. Yearning for my own robot? Only if it would get rid of junk in the garage, iron, and empty out the cat’s litter box. In the meantime I’ll bug my husband — no batteries required — to do some of these chores.