Socializing With Robots: Still a Bad Idea

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"Imagine standing in front of a robot, gazing into its wide, plastic eyes, and falling in love," writes Jeffrey R. Young at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Or, better yet, imagine spooning with a plump bedmate: the semi-sentient robot blob pillow, designed to help stave off loneliness by simulating the breathing motions of a partner with artificial muscle technology that produces human-like movements. If you're conjuring up a dystopian vision based on these innovations, then you're on the same page with author Sherry Turkle, who doesn't care much for sociable robots, nor presumably a "man-on-blob" future.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young profiles Sherry Turkle, from her turn on the cover of Wired magazine to her latest book, Alone Together, which argues that "many of us are already a little too cozy with our machines." Turkle, who concedes that she once had an "almost school-girl crush" on a sociable robot, is now making this prediction: "companies will soon sell robots designed to baby-sit children, replace workers in nursing homes, and serve as companions for people with disabilities."

This admittedly time-worn prediction is not supposed to be good news. Cell phones, laptops, Facebook and other forms of personal technology have already coccooned a generation completely accustomed to social communication strictly in digital form (some millenials are even uncomfortable talking on their cell phones, preferring instead to text). Sociable robots, of the caring or loving variety, have "seductive and potentially dangerous powers," Turkle argues.

"Today's young people have a special vulnerability: Although always connected, they feel deprived of attention," she writes. "Some, as children, were pushed on swings while their parents spoke on cellphones. Now these same parents do their e-mail at the dinner table." One 17-year-old boy even told her that at least a robot would remember everything he said, contrary to his father, who often tapped at a BlackBerry during conversations.

In short: Turkle hopes that there's a better cure for loneliness than curling up with a Funktionide.

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