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Future Shock

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Fast forward to 10 years from now. After a tiring day, you gather your stuff and head for home. Are you looking forward to an intimate evening with your family? Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, doesn't think so. She says there's a dark possibility, getting stronger by the minute, that you'll head for your favourite robot instead. What its name will be we can't say now, but the creature will be the culmination of our long history of experimenting with technology that meets our every need in a more refined and realistic way.

In the book, the MIT professor warns us about two depressing scenarios. One, we will prefer robots over humans and will barely be able to tell the difference. Two, we will forever be changed by social media to the point where we prefer shallow relationships over actual intimacy. In both scenarios, we will be together, alone. In short, God help us all. But wait, he might be a robot too.

In Part I, Turkle timelines the making of robots, from Eliza, the early project in artificial intelligence, to furry Furby dolls, Japanese digit pets or Tamagotchis, Aibo, and various other contraptions, some of them happy to have sex with people. Her ideas about what will happen in the future is based on interviews with "hundreds" of people, especially children and the elderly. There are stories aplenty, but no statistics. And on that note, what Turkle outlines is singularly horrifying. She says that already children are having difficulty in distinguishing the real or authentic from the inanimate and unfeeling. They treat robotic toys as if they have feelings. Haven't they done that for centuries with toys? Surely, kids grow out of that? But no. Turkle says even adults can find relationships with robots deeply rewarding. Because we have a fragile sense of self; we are terrified of intimacy, and run from commitment. Robots don't let us down, don't demand much and we don't have to clean up after them. She tells the story of an elderly woman whose son has cut off ties with her. The lady turns to a robotic toy, who turns its head to look at her, responds with warm noises and apparently replaces her son squarely. It's a bizarre and disquieting story, like many others in this book. But you be the judge of whether this constitutes adequate evidence of the shape of our future. I would have been happier — or sadder — with scientifically conducted studies, even if they made for duller reading.

In Part II, Turkle takes issue with social media, and our tendency for constant messaging. Now here, we have more obvious trends that everyone can see and many of us are worried about. Everyone has experienced being with people physically while they are elsewhere as they tap and swipe their gadgets. At a get together, I was once told to kindly just send the iPad next time. I got the message. I was actually listening deeply to someone elaborating on a serious problem even while I doodled with a drawing app. But unless your body language says you're listening, the other person won't perceive it as such, and it will impact relationships. A future where such experiences only increase is not something to look forward to. Turkle says it happens because we find it easier and it helps us avoid that dreaded bogie: intimacy. I wonder. If we hated intimacy so much, we'd have had less people populating the planet.

But, says Turkle, we are as much changed by technology as it is by us. "We turn to new technologies to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down." In presenting a certain persona online, we become that person, or get confused and disoriented.

I have a lot in common with Turkle. Well, not her MIT job. But we both have a psychology background, have worked with research and closely watched technology grow over the past 15 years. Turkle let go of her optimism to paint a dark picture of our technology-powered lives, while mine took a hit but didn't tip over into such an abyss. You might want to listen to her TED talk before deciding whether to buy her book.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 06-08-2012)