Relational Artifacts

Posted: June 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

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As software becomes more advanced, the relationships between individuals and technology are becoming more personal.This shift towards technology to meet our emotional needs for genuineness, empathy, caring, and trust may be a result of a disconnected society. Moreover, it appears that is some instances, individuals may choose the company of computerized constructs for virtual empathy over that of non-trusting human companionship (Turkle, 2007, p. 502).

How do innovative technologies have such a profound psychological hold over us?  According to Turkle (2007), the answer may lie in its ability to push our “Darwinian buttons” (p. 503). These novel forms of technology that Turkle refers to as “relational artifacts” are constructed to appeal to our innate instinct to nurture. By leading us to believe that we need to take care of them, these digital artifacts have become very effective at playing on our vulnerabilities. “When a digital creature entrains people to play parent, they become attached. They feel connection and even empathy.” (Turkle, 2007, p.506).

As our pursuit to create authentic digital relationships continues, at what point do the ends justify the means? How far are we willing to go? Currently, advancements in robotic technologies have led to the creation of shockingly humanlike androids. Japanese engineers have developed life-like robots in the hopes of providing some much needed companionship and empathy to the elderly in hospitals. However, as these robots are made to look more human, our reactions to these life-like robots are counterproductive. They can instead instill a sense of uneasiness and discomfort. Their almost human-like gestures and facial expressions may cause our conscious and unconscious psyche to fall out of balance — leaving us with the impression that something is just not quite right.  This phenomenon is what Freud refers to as the uncanny. Similar to distressing reactions from contemporary human-like relational artifacts, he relates this phenomenon to disturbing impressions that wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons made on individuals in the past.  In his description, Freud (1919) stated that “…the “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (p. 5). The solution to lessening these reactionary emotions from the uncanny may be even more disconcerting than the phenomenon itself. As advancements in robotic engineering continue, robots or computer-generated characters may eventually get to a stage where we can no longer distinguish them apart from humans.

As we develop a more intimate relationship to technology, it may be important to reflect on how we really want to interact with relational artifacts in the future. If robots are already demonstrating a sense of subconscious control over humans, will that force us to redefine intimate connections? Relational artifacts are becoming so human-like that perhaps one day people will fall in love with and possibly even marry them. Will we forgo the painstaking efforts it takes to find and maintain intimacy and authenticity when the alternative appears to be so much easier?

One of the defining characteristics of being human is to question what it means to be human. Artificial intelligence and technological progress towards the construction of anthropological simulation research is undoubtedly pushing the boundaries and challenging our views on existentialism. “Perhaps in the distant future, the difference between human beings and robots will seem purely philosophical.” (Turkle, 2007, p. 514). However, whether a robot can genuinely recreate authenticity or not may be purely semantics. It is only perception that makes this true or not. It is human nature to want to see in others what we see in ourselves and as we continually create these robots in our own image, it stands to reason, that we may simply ignore the limitations of these beings as we have come to ignore our own.

It is fair to assume that there may be cause for worry about our culture being intellectually and emotionally challenged by the effects of digital and interactive technology. And as an information-obsessed culture, our ability to focus and recall information may be at risk. Additionally and more tragically, we may be devoting less and less time for self-reflection.  However, one must not overlook the importance of these innovative and emerging technologies. Technology is not taking over. These are creations and extensions of our mental and physical selves. Like no other time in history, they are helping us to connect to each other. And by allowing us to instantly and collectively bond with people, technology may actually increase our humanness.



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