In today’s world, robots are being inserted in more and more different human activities. They have been programmed to do many distinct kinds of work in factories and warehouses. Robots perform surgeries and handle radioactive wastes. Although sometimes robots do work that is difficult or impossible for humans to do, in many cases, robots replace humans in jobs that the latter need in order to survive. However, the result of being put out of work is not only the loss of economic support for the worker. The unemployed person goes into an experiential vacuum as a result of lack of interaction with a workplace and with other workers. And in today’s world, a person who loses his job, frequently has an extended period of time being unemployed, of time being in an experiential vacuum.
But robots are also being programmed to create positive experiences for humans. Robots are going to increasingly become companions to humans in all kinds of situations. A relatively popular form of robotic companion is the robotic pet. These pets supposedly give you all the advantages of real pets without the annoyance of having to actually take care of them. No need to feed them, take them for a walk, replace kitty litter, take them to the groomer or take them to the veterinarian. These machines can walk around, respond to commands, and learn enough from their masters that they can develop an identity.
Then there are robots that focus on interacting with children. Some of these robots serve the purpose of pleasure for children through playing games and dancing. Others that are being developed involve more serious functions – teaching children how to read as well as acting as a trainer for physical exercise. Supposedly some of these robots will be able to help children with cognitive disabilities.
There are robots being developed just to be human-like companions. They can “read” speech inflection, facial expression and body gestures and can somehow provide affection for people who are lonely.
One particular kind of isolation or loneliness that a person can experience is that related to sexual intimacy. There are anatomically correct female robots. I have not yet heard of any anatomically correct male robots on the market.
There are robots that specialize in taking care of the elderly. These robots perform tasks as diverse as laundry, cleaning and reminding elderly people to take their medicine at appropriate times. This includes actually handing the medicine to the person. Other possible tasks include serving the elderly beverages, assessing their general state of health and being able to contact emergency personnel, should a health crisis arise. These robots also “socialize” with the elderly, so they won’t feel so lonely.
There are even plans to include certain robots on long distance flights to other planets, to moons and to asteroids. Supposedly, the robots can help space travelers to feel less lonely.
We can see that robots can be built to satisfy a lot of different companionship needs. The question is what is it that causes some people to enjoy relating to robots similar to the way they relate to humans and pets?
One obvious reason relates to the whole issue of taking care of another organism. In today’s modern technological world, which lacks a lot of organic grounding and is filled with sensory distortion, individual humans have to spend a lot of time and energy just taking care of themselves psychologically. Most parents today lack the patience to spend long hours interacting with their children, playing with them and teaching them new things. Without much organic grounding in the modern technological living environment, there is no template for creating the deep-bonded relationships that lead to sustained nurturance and care. It used to be that children in modern society were placed down in front of the television to avoid allowing them to bother their parents or caregivers too much. Then along came the video games, computers, smartphones, and tablets, and these became even more impelling ways to capture children’s attentions and occupy their minds. It is now a logical progression to move from these forms of consumer technology to robots. And robots can become involved not only in terms of playing with children, but also educating them and even giving them a kind of nurturance.
This sloughing off of care responsibilities also explains the development of robots for taking care of the elderly. As people live longer and sink into chronic health conditions that require ongoing care, there is seldom a strong large family unit available to divide up the tasks of care. In small nuclear families, overwhelmed children of elderly parents will grab at robots to care for their parents. Particularly because the children, with all of their own narcissistic needs, feel resentful having to spend so much time away from just being themselves.
Robots are basically a perfect vehicle for deflecting any meaningful confrontation with the nurturance gap that is growing in modern technological society. Robots are machines that, however complicated they may be, are not going to be able to provide organic nurturance to modern humans who, because of their lack of organic grounding, are incapable of really dealing with this most fundamental mammalian need. The creators of these robots will say that the robots are not meant to replace human caretakers, but rather to complement them. However, the borders for what is the appropriate use of such robots are rather blurry, and for busy adults with full professional and social lives, the temptation to slide into using caretaking robots in more and more situations is very great. For the dependent children, it means less time spent in the presence of the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli from other humans and more time with the digital defined discrete stimuli from what are basically machines. Do we really want our children to be molded into robots? For elderly people, it means being in encounters with entities with bland behavior, robots that provide no meaningful organic friction, no meaningful interactions as those that would come from an organism that is truly distinct from oneself. Is a relationship with a robot truly a living relationship? The kind of relationship that would pull an elderly person out of passivity, out of depression, out of himself?
Another reason that people are drawn to the use of robot companions is to overcome a basic sense of loneliness. More and more people in modern technological society live alone. This column has discussed that it is much more difficult to form or maintain deep-bonded relationships with other people in a living environment that does not provide a template for such a relationship. Modern technological societies do not have the organic grounding to provide such a template. In addition, as people interact more and more with complex behavioral entities like video games, computers, smartphones and tablets, it becomes more and more difficult to directly experience affection and love, to experience flowing blendable continual emotional stimuli and to exchange organic imprints with other people.
Robots provide the opportunity for creating a kind of emotional connection, at least a connection flowing from the human to the robot. Whether the robot is to provide general companionship or sexual intimacy, the human has at his disposal a complex behavioral entity that supposedly can pull him out of himself and give him the impression that he is not alone. Because a robot is initially somewhat of a blank slate and has to be programmed, it can eventually be trained to have a kind of a personality that is similar to or that complements its owner. In effect, the robot is an extension of its owner. And to the extent that the robot is part of the owner, the owner never really does get pulled out of himself. He is not drawn into the external world. It is like the person is living in a dream rather than in real life. In such a situation, a person is expending a lot of energy and not making, preserving or receiving organic imprints, not having rich vibrant life experiences, and not preparing for death with a surrogate immortality. Interacting with a robot lacks the kind of organic friction that leads to organic imprints and rich vibrant life experiences.
Is a robot truly the kind of companion a person would want on a long space flight, let’s say to Mars? Can a robot ever be a substitute for another human or for a pet? Only if the human has become primed for the encounter by becoming somewhat robotic himself. A robot is never going to be a replacement for an animal when it comes to humans who still have a significant organic grounding in themselves. For such people, robots are never going to be a true substitute for real humans or pets. And that is a good thing for the human race.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow