The Personalist Project

I've come across several articles recently (here's one) reporting that it is only a matter of time before sex robots are readily available and widely used. It's appalling, of course, but, given the state of our culture and all the money to be made in the sex industry, not surprising. Sex toys have been around a long time, and a sex robot is really nothing other than the latest, most technologically advanced version. It seems a difference of degree, not kind.

What I find stranger and perhaps more unsettling is the rise of social robots: robots that are designed not to be tools or workers or toys, but real companions. They will be engineered to engage us in small talk, understand and respond to our moods, show us sympathy, and so on. Robot Pepper is a good example:

Pepper is, according to the company that makes it, the first robot with a heart. The company makes a point of saying that Pepper “doesn't clean” and “doesn't cook.” Rather, it “is a social robot able to converse with you, recognize and react to your emotions, move and live autonomously.” Pepper is described as more than just a thing. With Pepper we can have a relationship. It acts like a friend with feelings and a life of its own. Pepper must be treated with a degree of respect, not as a mere thing or slave, as is underlined, for instance, by the user agreement which states that owners “must not perform any sexual act” or “other indecent behavior” with it.

I find all of this mind-boggling and disturbing. Is it really possible for people to mistake a machine for a person? Perhaps it is. More likely, however, it's a case of "settling for less."

Persons are framed to live in communion with others. We desire real relationships, friends we can talk to and who will listen to us. But these are increasingly hard to find. Friends and family live far away. Other people do not have time for us, and, to be honest, we do not have a lot of time for them either. Some of this is our own fault. But much of it is simply a regrettable function of modern life. Loneliness is a very real and increasingly widespread problem, and it makes us vulnerable (as Sherry Turkle argues) to things like social robots.

We (still) know that Pepper and other robots like it, no matter how technologically advanced they get, are but a poor substitute for real human persons. But they are seen as at least better than nothing—in some ways even better than the real thing. They are much easier to deal with. Years ago our super-clean Swiss landlady told us that plastic advent wreaths are much better than real ones. In this way too, robotic pets are better than real pets. Watch this video about the healing effects of Paro, a robotic therapeutic baby seal, to see what I mean.

Humanoid robots are not yet as convincing as robotic pets, but someday perhaps they will be. Then we will be able to buy a friend according to our own specifications. It will not be the same as a real friend, but 1) better than no friend at all, and 2) much easier and safer than a real friend. 

Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk, among others, have raised the alarm about robots and artificial intelligence. These things, they say, could easily become too strong and intelligent for us to control. They could even threaten the existence of the human race. In a strange way they may be right. Not that robots will ever become truly conscious and free, or have the inward life necessary to rebel against their makers. The threat I see is more like the threat of alcohol or drugs—that of getting hooked on them. As Turkle says "The point is not so much that the machine is smart but that we are vulnerable." The more impoverished our inner lives become, and the more superficial our relationships with others, the more susceptible we will be to the temptation of replacing persons with robots. It will not be great, in fact, it will be pretty depressing. But it will be better than nothing.

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