Every so often I hear something that makes me stop in my tracks and evaluate my own personal feelings about something. For awhile now there have been a chorus of folks warning us about the evils of technology and how we are losing our ability to relate to other human beings by replacing face to face conversation with a combination of text messages and email. This has honestly disturbed me a bit, simply because my life is actually so much richer thanks to the ease of non-face-to-face communication options. You probably don’t think that someone who can rattle out a post every single morning is an introvert, but in truth I am happiest when in my home with only my wife, the cats and the ferrets to keep me company. I suffer from a truck load of anxiety when dealing with people out in the real world. I do fine in social situations, but I also suffer from an irrational amount of stress leading up to it. I know deep down inside that I will enjoy myself when we go out to dinner or a movie with friends, but up until the moment we are actually leaving the house… every instinct in my body is telling me to call… cancel… and stay in the comfort and safety of my home.
There are times when I get this irrational fight or flight instinct, and I have learned over the years how to trick myself into ignoring it. The problem is it is still there and no matter how minor.. face to face interaction and using the phone… both stress me out beyond reason. If I need to make a call, like something as simple as making a doctor appointment… I will put it off until I have almost run out of time to do it. So when I hear people talking about how non-face-to-face communication is degrading the fabric of society… I get more than a little defensive. The ability to chat with friends over instant messenger, or hang out with folks on Teamspeak… give me a way of reaching out and hanging out with people without triggering all of the anxiety of sitting across the table from someone. I am by no means frozen by my fears… because I get out every day and talk to people, and put on my best friendly southerner act. The problem is I can only handle so much of this before my buffer of civility is drained and I need to get the hell away from other people.
So while listening to NPR over my lunch break, I thought I was preparing for yet another speech on how we just need to sit down and hang out together more often. It was then when they threw me a curveball. This discussion was about how we are interacting more with devices and how folks love talking to things like Siri or the new Amazon Echo. They talked about how we are on the cusp of having “social robots” in our lives that interact with us. Largely the discussion was about the dangers of interacting with things that have no empathy can have no ability to actually care about us as human beings. They talked about a study where they introduced a child to a what they kept terming a “social robot”, essentially one that mimics and mirrors human behavior. There were technical difficulties and after a few minutes of interacting the robot shut down. The child saw this as rejection… as this device “not liking her” and was extremely distraught.
With more and more AI entering our science fiction, with movies like Her, and the television show Humans… this is going to come up and ultimately we are going to have to deal with issues we have never dealt with before as a culture. The problem I have with this whole line of thought though, is that she kept saying that robots were incapable of empathy. As a programmer by trade I think maybe I just have a different line of reasoning behind this. What is empathy but essentially our way of decoding a series of inputs from another human being. What we call empathy is realy not that unlike what computers do with every single decision they make. They read in a set of data points, and then make a decision based on a predetermined matrix of possibilities. Without realizing it we are doing this every time we determine what someone is feeling or thinking… we are unwittingly taking posture, facial expressions, vocal intonation, and comparing to our own experiences to break down that sequence of data into a “feeling” or an “emotion”.
I would go so far as to say that essentially we are machines in the most basic sense of that word. Granted we are exceeding complicated machines, but every single function of our bodies is a system built upon a system built upon the encoding that we received at birth through our genetic make-up. We consume nutrients to power the cells in our body that are then programmed to behave in certain ways just like the code of a computer. While we have yet to delve into genetic hacking on a large scale, it has been happening in the lab for over a decade to produce new medicines. While there are ethical dilemmas standing in the way, I feel like by the end of my life time we will be treating diseases by rewriting segments of our internal “code”.
All of this said… since we are basically machines running custom hardware, executing custom code, and reacting to a lifetime of custom data inputs… doesn’t it seem naive to think that robots will forever be incapable of empathy? Machines are good at analyzing data, making assumptions on that data, and then reaching a decision. Since what we think of as “empathy” is essentially us doing exactly that thing… I cannot believe that eventually we will have machines that can mimic those processes that we consider as “unique” or “special”. I know this is a strange topic for a gaming blog, but every now and then one of these topics happens and I want to write about it. For ages these topics have just gotten filed away in my head for a later discussion… that never actually happens. Since this is Blaugust the month of pushing people out of their comfort zone I thought to myself… go for it, post it. Futurism is a past time that I love to indulge in, and I had an excellent discussion about it while recording one of the Bel Folks Stuff episodes. I think dreaming and envisioning these ideas helps us to formulate ways to deal with it when it ultimately becomes a reality. I would love to hear folks thoughts about this… or honestly if you just want me to shut up about these side topics and stick to game blogging.
Real quick edit to embed the Aspen Institute talk that inspired this post.