Blog Post

Alone Together

We are members of a class at University of Maryland, called Networked Intelligence ( This semester we are wrestling with ideas about how networked technologies and our information-rich worlds change the way we learn, live, and collaborate. In response to a wonderful letter that Dr. Davidson sent us, we will post a weekly blog that summarizes the big thoughts from our own peers’ writings and class discussion. Please feel free to connect with us and add to our networked learning.

Authors: Lenore Koenig, Pamela Assogba, Andrew Yung

This week in EDCI288b, we read the first part of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together . Each student of the class picked a quote and expressed their opinions on it through deep reading. Amongst the posts, one main theme seemed to emerge and dominate the discussions: robot-human relationships, and their implications. Many wonder if  the increasing use of robots will benefit our society, or if it will eventually lead to diminished human interaction.

The students of our class all agreed that nowadays we’re becoming more and more dependent on our technological devices.  In order for us to interact with others, we constantly need to use technology. Our phones, laptops and even televisions are our mediums to connect with the “real world”. We become dependent without even realizing it. (Jenna) In her book, Sherry Turkle says  the younger generation is immersed in technology.  Whenever children are introduced to robots such as My Cry Baby or AIBO, they often fully embrace it as a living being, despite its dubious emotional authenticity and humanity. This phenomenon is not limited to children, however. Oddly enough, researchers observed the same reaction with older people living in nursing homes. When presented with life-like robotic pet seals, the elderly interacted with the robots as if they were living creatures capable of love. These two sets of reactions are specific to these age groups, which crave attention for different reasons. Children need attention to develop properly. The elderly desire attention from others in the absence of their biological family. Unfortunately, robotic interactions teach children they don’t necessarily need to interact with real humans in the future. All the emotional rewards of a mutual relationship can be gotten from a robotic companion, without any responsibility, compromise, or conflict. To the elderly, their family has become replaceable and human interaction easily dispensable; a robot is as good as a human. (Jordan, Matt, Alysia)

A lot of our classmates developed on the negative consequences of robots and their development, such as human alienation and an increase in loneliness. Because of our dependency to simple yet essential gadgets, we might become increasingly addicted to more complex machines. Robots are especially appealing to people because they offer all the benefits of a relationship without any of the drawbacks; the lack any will to think selfishly or to present conflicts of interest. Their whole purpose of existence is to serve the human. Interestingly enough, a robot’s incapability of free will is also what turns people off to exclusively robotic relationships: a robot cannot choose to be with a person, nor can it offer an opinion, advice, or an argument. Without a will, the relationship lacks the benefit of individual autonomy. With time what will the future look like? In his post, Christopher gives us many possible outcomes, represented in movies such as I, Robot and Serenity. These outcomes might be different, but they all lead to a world dominated by robots and/or even less connectivity between human beings.

However, not all of our classmates believed that a world of human-robot interactions inevitably leads to robot Armageddon. Inarguably, robots offer unique and innovative solutions to unavoidable human resource limitations, such as a limited number of one-on-one caregivers, and unique interpersonal relationship problems, such as treating stigmatized mental disorders anonymously and confidentially. Whether or not a robot is better than something varies from person to person, but many can agree that a robot is better than nothing. As the algorithms behind robots become more robust, robots become more relatable and realistic. The question becomes not if robot-human relationships will exist, for they already do exist in a very real way, but in what context are these robot-human relationships appropriate? Should robots be limited to the dominion of emotionally-inert servants, or should they be allowed to become trustworthy personal confidants? To that question, there is no clear consensus.

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