Sunday, December 10, 2017

Your Robot Never Loved You

I read an article yesterday in The Atlantic, "Should Children Form Emotional Bonds with Robots?"…/12/my-sons-first-robot/544137/

The author buys a small, simple robot for his son. The robot is animated by an app on the father's phone.  It has two circle-eyes and a line-mouth on its screen face, but between that screen face and a range of sounds, the robot is able to "express" a wide range of "emotions."

I put "express" and "emotions" in quotes, but in the article, these words were not in quotes, and the questions remain unasked: Is the robot expressing emotion the way living things with faces express emotion?  Or is the robot no different from a doll that cries when we pull a string (except that the string, and the timing of the pulling of the string, has been pre-programmed into the robot's software to create the illusion of self-expression--and therefore, of self)?

Robotic self-expression: It's an oxymoron, isn't it? least until AI is so advanced that...well, that's another can of worms.  We're not quite there yet. I hope.

Really loud alarms started going off in my head as I was reading this yesterday. Since then, I've been wondering whether that wasn't an over-reaction.  My first thought was that people are going to replace pets with robots.

Unlike robots, which are programmed to charm us and to mirror the human way of thinking, animals are innately different from us.  They learn differently and they think differently. Dogs may cater to our vanity by obsessively observing our faces to interpret our every mood and emotion.... I'm not saying that don't suck up...But they're different from us, and from each other, each according to its breed.

I can honestly say that my dogs have been so different, one from the other, that to a great degree, I have started from square one at the beginning of my relationship with each one of them.

Our pets challenge us to think beyond our own way of being and our own personal agenda. They challenge us to understand a creature that is different, and they require that we relate to them in a way that isn't always convenient, and which imposes a degree of structure and even altruism on our lives.

And I think that is all to the good.

Moreover, pets, as animals, create a bridge for children to begin appreciating other kinds of animals.When we've loved one or two different animals, we can imagine loving other animals.

This may be less important for us as humans than it is for animals, both domestic and wild; because if we stop caring about animals, then what will stop us from destroying their habitats and harvesting animals for their hands, tusks or hides?

Take elephants, for example. I've never owned an elephant, but I always wanted to know one when I was a kid.  Everything I've learned about elephants over the years has just made them more interesting to me.

A friend of mine spent some time, years ago, in the Congo, searching for a particular herd of elephants (for research purposes, not to hunt).  She told me that she left her backpack on the ground for a moment, and when she returned, she discovered that an elephant had come along and stepped on it, squashing it into the ground.  This was in the midst of a two-week safari spent searching for these elephants. She said she sensed that they were often close by, observing her group from a safe distance, without being found.

I've seen elephants and other animals in underfunded zoos expressing mind-crumbling loneliness, boredom, or anguish.

When people see animals in distress, they want to make the habitat nicer for them. They give the zoo money. I've seen this happen right here in Madison.  I've seen polar bears living in becalmed madness upgraded to a better situation, with convivial companions, deeper swimming pools, space to roam, and icy caves where they can retreat from the glare of public attention.

I feel now as I did last year, when my horse and cat were both injured and sick; I feel that we must all be paying close attention to animals, to nature, and to our own vulnerable habitat.

The last thing we need now is to wean a generation of children off of having relationships with animals by redirecting their emotional capital toward robots.

What will the robot give the child in return?  Will it give love?  Will it connect a child to other creatures, earthlings like itself?  Will it teach the child to be gentle, responsible, and conscientious?  Will it give the child a deeper appreciation of the importance and value of needing green space all around us?   Will it teach a child humility, as they stoop to clean up after their pet?

Or will it teach a grown child that the affection they thought they were getting from a robot was not real?  And that the small anguish they felt as they neglected that robot was completely unnecessary--a softly cruel manipulation designed to mimic the importance of commitment to something real and alive?  In short, the whole premise of the robot being sentient and feeling and real in the way it was assumed to be real was fake.

I don't think that robots are like TV.  We stare at the TV for hours, but we don't love the TV as an individual machine.

We love how our smartphones can be tailored to our interests and needs.  But as long as all of the stuff can be transferred to another one, we don't hesitate to upgrade to a new phone out of some sense of attachment to the old.

These robots, with their displays of colorful emotion, are a little like Santa Clause, in a sense. They are a fiction born of good intentions and collective commercialized mythology.

But the relationship that a child might have with a robot would feel qualitatively and fundamentally more profound than the child's relationship with Santa Clause. Santa Clause comes but once a year. The robot moves right in.

So, let us never forget that a robot is not alive. It does not express emotions (it parrots them), because it cannot experience emotions.

There are no real consequences to the robot's neglect--or its "love."  It is all an illusion, and and a huge gulping vortex of a distraction from the immediate perils of other earthlings in our midst, (not to mention ourselves, with respect to our own absolutely essential relationship with nature).  It is a massive distraction from everything that pets as animals can teach us, and from everything that we stand to lose by not paying attention to them--or, God forbid, by forgetting all about them in the space of one generation.

Yes, alarms went off.  I still hear them.

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