is professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago and a member of the Public Theologies of Technology and Presence programme at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. He is the author of many books, including The Evolution of Imagination (2017), Why We Need Religion (2018) and his latest, The Emotional Mind: Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition (2019), co-authored with Rami Gabriel.
When Alexa replied to my question about the weather by tacking on ‘Have a nice day,’ I immediately shot back ‘You too,’ and then stared into space, slightly embarrassed. I also found myself spontaneously shouting words of encouragement to ‘Robbie’ my Roomba vacuum as I saw him passing down the hallway. And recently in Berkeley, California, a group of us on the sidewalk gathered around a cute four-wheeled KiwiBot – an autonomous food-delivery robot waiting for the traffic light to change. Some of us instinctively started talking to it in the sing-song voice you might use with a dog or a baby: ‘Who’s a good boy?’
We’re witnessing a major shift in traditional social life, but it’s not because we’re always online, or because our tech is becoming conscious, or because we’re getting AI lovers like Samantha in Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013). To the contrary, we’re learning that humans can bond, form attachments and dedicate themselves to non-conscious objects or lifeless things with shocking ease. Our social emotions are now being hijacked by non-agents or jabbering objects such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or IBM’s Watson, and we’re finding it effortless, comfortable and satisfying.
The sophistication level of human-like simulation that AI needs in order to elicit our empathy and emotional entanglement is ridiculously low. A Japanese study in 2008 showed that elderly residents of a senior care home were quickly drawn into substantial social interactions with a rudimentary, toy-like robot seal named ‘Paro’. The seniors experienced increased motor and emotional stimulation with the bot, but also increased social interactions with each other regarding Paro. Tests showed that the reactions of the seniors’ vital organs to stress improved after the introduction of the robot. And in a test in 2018 at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany, researchers built robots that administered ‘soft-warm hugs’ to people, who reported feeling trust and affection for the robot – even saying that they felt ‘understood by’ the robot. The point is not that robots are now such convincing counterfeit persons that we’re falling into relationships with them. It’s that humans are suckers for any vague sign of social connection. All of us are a hair’s breadth away from Tom Hanks’s character in Cast Away(2000), who forges a deep bond with a volleyball he names Wilson.
Recently, science has come to understand the emotions of social bonding, and I think it helps us understand why it’s so easy to fall into these ‘as-if intimacies’ with things. Care or bonding is a function of oxytocin and endorphin surging in the brain when you spend time with another person, and it’s best when it’s mutual and they’re feeling it too. Nonhuman animals bond with us because they have the same brain chemistry process. But the system also works fine when the other person doesn’t feel it – and it even works fine when the other person isn’t even a ‘person’. You can bond with things that cannot bond back. Our emotions are not very discriminating and we imprint easily on anything that reduces the feeling of loneliness. But I think there’s a second important ingredient to understanding our relationship with tech.
The proliferation of devices is certainly amplifying our tendency for anthropomorphism, and many influential thinkers claim that this is a new and dangerous phenomenon, that we’re entering into a dehumanising ‘artificial intimacy’ with gadgets, algorithms and interfaces. I respectfully disagree. What’s happening now is not new, and it’s more interesting than garden-variety alienation. We are returning to the oldest form of human cognition – the most ancient pre-scientific way of seeing the world: animism. […]