Warning: the video below may creep you out excessively. But this is something I think everyone needs to see because of its implications: the ways in which we interact with intelligent technology are evolving so quickly that, though future possibilities often excite us, the nature of these interactions seem equally likely to become bizarre and frightening. Take a look:
Many of you may be wondering what in the world I just asked you to watch. Allow me to explain. As part of his graduate thesis, German designer Stefan Ulrich worked with electroactive polymers (EPAs), a type of synthetic material—similar to everyday plastic—that changes shape in response to an electric current. Researchers have already explored the use of such polymers to make artificial muscles, even inspiring an arm wrestling match that pits an EPA robotic arm against a human. Ulrich, however, decided to take advantage of the material’s unique properties to create a shape-shifting robot of marshmallow texture and color. Ulrich claims the project, which he calls Funktionide, provides its user “with an atmosphere of presence, thus counteracting the feeling of loneliness.” Okay, acknowledging the less than satisfying translation of his native tongue—“atmosphere of presence,” anyone?—we can infer that Ulrich intends the robot as a kind of surrogate companion, one that can help offset loneliness.
Hmm. Even though this living cushion mimics the gentle rise and fall of human breathing, when I look at Funktionide slowly squirming its way towards its owner—or, perhaps, its companion—I think of nothing so much as a fly larva. But maybe that’s just me. Let’s say something like this actually would catch on with a certain subset of the population: is it really a good idea to offer up a featureless—though huggable—larval pillow as a legitimate means of combating loneliness? (This brings to mind the Japanese phenomenon of body-pillow girlfriends, or the disturbing but incredible documentary “Guys and Dolls,” which concerns men who turn to life-size dolls for sexual and emotional companionship; you can usually find it on YouTube.)
Making and maintaining interpersonal relationships with other human beings is not easy for everyone—or anyone, really. For some individuals, it’s especially difficult. There’s already a whole host of therapies for loneliness that do not depend on forming bonds with other people: herbs, dietary changes, exercise routines, anti-depressants and similar drugs, to name a few. And everyone knows cats, dogs and other pets help comfort those feeling lonely or depressed. So if some kind of artificial substitute for human companionship—even something like a squirmy body-pillow—can safely and effectively help people, why not? Well, here’s the real question: is it actually helping? Are substitutes good enough? Do they get to the root of the problem? Are they psychologically healthy solutions? Answering those questions would take a whole separate blog post—a whole book, really—but my intuition says No.
To be fair, Ulrich is not unaware of the concerns his project raises: “The work’s intention is to ask what happens if a product, which was proposed as a relief against social isolation, begins to become the solution. In this way the thesis[’s] intention is to create a picture for discussion, which enables us to question how much we want technological products to satisfy our emotional needs,” his Web site reads.
I think that’s well put. If you’ve seen popular science fiction films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, then you’re already familiar with particularly vivid examples of futuristic technology designed specifically to “satisfy our emotional needs,” like android prostitutes, interactive holographic girlfriends, and the ability to live out our desires in virtual reality. The problems with such speculative technologies are clear: they effectively drive people away from one another, encouraging convenient and synthetic fulfillment of people’s basic psychological needs—encouraging illusions.
Now, we’ve all heard the pervasive arguments that in today’s world of cell phones and text messages, of e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter, we daily deprive ourselves of genuine face-to-face interaction in favor of communication from behind computer screens, avatars and online aliases. But I don’t agree with many of those arguments. Cell phones, e-mail and online social networks have invaluably augmented our ability to communicate with one another. These are immensely helpful tools on which many of us depend—and justly so. Do you really want to go back to the era of Jane Austen, when handwritten correspondence was pretty much all you had to work with, and many a day was passed with palms pressed to the window pane, awaiting the messenger with your beloved’s letter in hand? And how could we give up the opportunity to instantly scrutinize the Facebook profile of a potential romantic interest, a perfectly accurate and impartial means of judgment? Pride and Prejudice 2.0.
What we do need to remember is that we are extremely social creatures, perhaps the most social creatures on the planet (with the possible exception of Bonobos: “Bonobos are peaceful. Aggression is diffused by sex and play”—frisky little apes!). Our social, emotional and psychological needs didn’t exactly evolve to be fulfilled by dolls, robots, computers, or pillows—regardless of how squishy, lifelike or intelligent they are. People need other people. And—at least right now—there is no technology out there that even comes close to matching the emotional intelligence of a human being. Yes, human companionship can be incredibly confusing, frustrating and difficult to understand and navigate; yes, certain individuals suffer a loneliness so great they need therapy, not just company. But there is real danger in substituting interactive technology for human relationships. We all need to learn and grow socially—by taking risks, by making mistakes, by confronting both love and rejection. Our brains expect it, demand it! When technology threatens to become a permanent substitute for the friendships and intimate relationships vital to natural human psychosocial development, that’s when we need to stop and rethink the implications of what we’re creating. Not when we spend a bit too much time choosing the perfect profile picture for Facebook, or abbreviate some words in a text message, but when we spend more time in a virtual world than outdoors (oh wait, maybe that’s already happened…)—or when we wake up with marshmallow larvae breathing silently beside us: that’s when we need to stop and rethink