Sherry Turkle's meditation on technology, "Alone Together"

By Jane Smiley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 28, 2011; 12:23 PM


Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

By Sherry Turkle

Basic. 360 pp. $28.95

In "Why the West Rules, For Now," his excellent and amusing survey of the last 70,000 years or so of human history, Ian Morris discusses an event we can look forward to in 2045: the Singularity, "effectively merging carbon-and-silicon based intelligence into a single global consciousness. . . . We will transcend biology, evolving into a new, merged being as far ahead of homo sapiens as a contemporary human is of the individual cells that merge to create his or her body." With 35 years to go, we now have Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together" as a progress report from the biotechnological front lines. And it is not amusing.

Turkle is a psychoanalytically trained psychologist at MIT who has specialized for years in studying artificial intelligence and its effect on humans who invent it, use it and enjoy it. Her new book considers robots, Facebook, iPhones and the Internet, and explores questions pertinent to each. Since the 1980s, she has made good use of her access to the foremost thinkers in the AI world, and she has devised experiments for observing how people of all ages - most instructively children and the elderly - interact with and relate to machines that in some ways mimic how humans or animals act, think and talk. "Alone Together" is not statistical, it is anecdotal. It is therefore vivid, even lurid, in its depictions of where we are headed, but the reader comes away unsure whether Turkle's anxieties are warranted.

It is clear throughout that a new technology has a cost and a momentum that are never considered when that technology is introduced - tractors looked easier than plows, iPhones seem more convenient than landlines. Only long after each innovation is introduced do humans bother to ponder things like soil erosion or texting while driving. Decades after the introduction of the Internet and of AI, Turkle is beginning to have second thoughts. She focuses first on robots: humans are determined to relate to them. No matter how old or young the humans are, no matter how sophisticated in their experience of AI, they begin to have feelings for robots they come in contact with and to feel that their feelings are reciprocated. A mechanical question elicits an answer, large painted eyes elicit compassion, a metallic touch elicits a responding touch, and the emotions that go along with human responses cannot be controlled. Turkle does not include pictures of the robots she mentions, but looking at them on the Internet after reading about them is disorienting - surely that is not Kismet, the prototype robotic girlfriend that many of Turkle's subjects are attracted to? But it is.

A robot in the room, acting animated and interested, draws us out of ourselves, but social networking tends to push us apart, Turkle says, because humans on the Internet behave (or can behave or are pushed to behave) inhumanely. The Internet gives people the cover to indulge in hate speech, to present phony personas, or simply to avoid relating in real space and time.

Turkle's subject is so vast that she cannot address every facet of it, and of course the missing facet that struck me as a novelist is that every robot and every networking app is a work of art, designed to express the psyche of the artist and to shape the response of the user. We are not entirely unversed in responding to things that don't exist - Odysseus, Macbeth and the woman portrayed in the Mona Lisa don't exist, either. We could say that when we read "David Copperfield," we agree to a joining of minds that is pleasurable and enlightening, and that as we read and experience many works of art, we clarify the boundaries between each one and between art and ourselves. Turkle's research subjects are at the very beginning of the next phase of the human journey. It may be that we will gain self-knowledge from our experience that we can't yet imagine.

For those who recoil, though, Ian Morris has an alternative - the collapse of civilization. He makes a good case that mankind has approached climate/energy/population ceilings before and that breakthrough is less likely than self-destruction; in fact, the melding of human and machine intelligence may be our only salvation. Turkle doesn't ponder this issue, but when you read her engrossing study, you will.

Jane Smiley is the author of "Private Life," "The Man Who Invented the Computer" and many other books.

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