No One Will Grow Old Alone

article image

Robots, of course, are everywhere, and though some might find them creepy they’re generally a lot more useful than clowns.

Maybe robots aren’t actually everywhere yet, but here at the Utne Reader we seem to read a great deal about robots, and much of that reading seems to suggest that robots will soon be babysitting our children, tending to our sick, and keeping many of us company in our dotage. Some of the people involved in the robot industry, in fact, believe that we may soon see the day when robots could be our very best friends.

Like plenty of other people I am advancing on dotage with alarming speed, and I’ll admit that I sometimes worry that, as a childless old man, there will be no one to care for me –let alone talk with me– when I can no longer care for myself and get tired of talking to the walls. Except in a pinch (and it may well come to that) I can’t really imagine I’d want a robot for a best friend, but I don’t suppose I’d mind terribly much if a robot was around to open soup cans, speak my name from time to time, and make sure I didn’t hurt myself doing calisthenics. My Utne colleague David Doody, who is also my personal physician, assures me that there is no reason in the world a robot couldn’t make a dandy personal care assistant and Gin Rummy partner. He said he read a robot article that I must have missed that said that robots are even handier than crossword puzzle dictionaries and can also turn on the water in the bathtub and insure that it is neither too hot nor too cold. I wondered aloud whether it might be possible to program one of these elder bots so that it could convincingly simulate the voices of friends and loved ones, and Doody said that, yes, he felt certain this was possible. He even suggested that a robot could be taught –I don’t know if that’s the right word– to discuss television shows or literature with me, if only –at least for the time being– in a prompting, conversation-starting way (i.e. “Do you enjoy this program?” or “What was the name of Don Quixote’s squire?”).

Anyway, I guess I’m all for this sort of thing, and if there is going to be a proliferation of robots I can’t help but hope for the peaceful coexistence of humans and robots. In science fiction novels I read when I was young, the robots always seemed to be portrayed as either slaves or combatants, and I think it would be an encouraging, progressive step if we were able instead to truly embrace them as helpmates.

In the January 21st issue of The Chronicle Review there was a story about a woman named Sherry Turkle who is some kind of scientist at M.I.T. (She’s also the author of a book called Alone Together). I guess you’d have to call the article a “cautionary tale,” in that Turkle started out sort of starry-eyed about robots and their potential; so much so, in fact, that there was an early moment in Turkle’s career when she developed a “schoolgirl crush” on a robot.

“Imagine standing in front of a robot, gazing into its wide, plastic eyes, and falling in love,” Jeffrey R. Young writes of that early moment.

You can read the article yourself, but suffice it to say that these many years later, now that all of us are inching closer to being able to fall in love with robots, Turkle is no longer so keen on the idea of “sociable robots.” She now finds the notion that a man might one day marry a robot –an idea put forth by David Levy in a 2007 book called Love and Sex With Robots– repellent. What David Levy is saying, Turkle contends, is that “for someone who is having trouble with the people world, I can build something. Let’s give up on him. I have something where he will not need relationships, experiences, and conversations. So let’s not worry about him.”

Turkle then wonders, “Who’s going to say what class of people get issued something? Is it going to be the old people, the unattractive? The heavy-set people? Who’s going to get the robots?”

Who’s going to get the robots? might seem like a pretty good question, although my assumption would be that the people who can pay for the robots will be the people who are going to get the robots. But I’m guessing the kind of robots we’re talking about here –the kind you could marry, for instance– are going to be pretty expensive, so maybe there will eventually be government-issued robots for people like me.

Ultimately, Turkle strikes me as a bit of killjoy. “We may be drawn to machines like this robotic seal,” she says in the caption to a photo of her snuggling with a robotic seal, “but they can never deliver on their promise.”

That sounds to me like the sour grapes of a woman who’s had her heart crushed by a robot.

Source: The Chronicle Review

Image by Joamm Tall, licensed under Creative Commons.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.