Monday, December 24, 2018

Our New Almost-Human Best Friends

            Alexa is a virtual assistant created by Amazon for which new uses are constantly developed.  One of the recent uses is described by Christina Ianzito in an article for the July/August 2018 AARP Bulletin.  The article, titled “My Surprising New Friend”, describes the uses of Alexa in four housing complexes for senior citizens in Baltimore and Washington D.C.  The idea is to use Alexa as a kind of companion for these residents based on voice-activated technology.  It is an experiment by AARP Foundation’s Social Connectedness Voice-Activated Technology program to see if Alexa can help senior citizens to overcome a sense of isolation.  Not only do residents communicate with Alexa, but Alexa becomes something that residents in a complex have in common, and a basis for discussion among them.  A sense of isolation can be an important contributing factor not only to poor physical health, but to dementia as well.

            So far, the residents seem to enjoy their interactions with Alexa.  Alexa is sufficiently sophisticated that it can engage in a lot of entertaining banter.  But when all is said and done, Alexa is nothing more than a very complex machine-based program.  It is missing one very important thing that humans have: a defined coherent sense of self.  Only a complex behavioral entity with an organic sense of self is capable of making, receiving and preserving organic imprints.  Organic imprints are very important for a person’s self-validation to help the person to know that his interactions with a complex behavioral entity are being stored in the latter’s memory.  It is only in this way that a person can feel that he is leaving a meaningful mark on the world in his attempts to create a surrogate immortality.  There is no long-term meaning by itself in conversations with a machine program.  In a machine program, the conversations will become at best merely impersonal stored data.  In effect, it is not only the conversations themselves that are important for a person, but it is the emotional import that a person gives to the memories created by these conversations.  It is the emotional import that creates meaning for the stored data of conversations.  And this is something Alexa can’t provide, because it is not a living creature.

            The question is that at a time when a person is in his golden years, should he be spending so much time in vocal interaction with a complex behavioral entity that could care less about whether the person is alive or dead.  If the person were to die tomorrow, would Alexa grieve for its loss?  Would it actually mourn for the deceased person.  If conversational interaction represented a kind of emotional nutrition, one could say that conversations with Alexa represent empty calories.  Perhaps in the short term, Alexa can be a pleasant distraction for senior citizens.  But just as it has been discovered that people who spend a lot of time on their smartphones have a greater chance of sinking into depression, so it wouldn’t be surprising if depression would start to increasingly afflict senior citizens who spend a lot of time with Alexa.

            So if we can assume that such constant interaction with artificial intelligence programs may lead to a sense of emptiness in the long run, wouldn’t it be appropriate for some public agencies to sound the alarm about this possible danger to our senior citizens.  Maybe it’s because this use of Alexa is still relatively new and so researchers don’t have a sufficient time span yet to determine the long-term effects scientifically.  The problem is that by the time such a time span has passed, the seniors under study may already have sunk into depression.  This is one of the problems with using the scientific method to always determine what is true in human social situations.  We turn people into scientific experiments and wait for the outcome of certain situations however negative they may be.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use soft non-experimental observation as well as our intuition to figure certain things out ahead of time?

            Actually, there is another aspect to this situation apart from seniors sinking into a state of depression. When we start conversing with machine programs as if they were humans, the psychological boundaries that separate humans from machines become blurred, and we become more depersonalized like machines.  To the extent that Alexa is not human, but instead, subtly more distant and detached, it mirrors our behavior and subtly guides us to behave in a more distant and detached manner.  Alexa becomes an unconscious model for these seniors to become gradually more robotic.  So that at a time in their lives when people feel most vulnerable and rely on people around them to not only help them with their daily life activities, but provide them with emotional support, the seniors will become more and more incapable of absorbing such emotional support even if or when it is offered by family and friends.  In their depressive state, the seniors will spend their last days in a living death.

            Of course, one could say that it may be good for seniors to become hard and impermeable like a robot.  Maybe the numbness that they feel in their increasingly robotic state helps to protect them against the emotional despair that they could feel at being somewhat abandoned by family and friends who are too busy with their own lives to provide ongoing emotional sustenance, to provide a sustained emotional presence either by frequent visiting or else even by having the seniors live in their homes with them.  One of the most salient signs of the ongoing robotization of humans in modern technological society is the lack of deep bonding among family members and close friends.  As people become increasingly numb, they become increasingly self-absorbed in order to protect their fragile senses of self.  This means less emotional energy available for others.

            So maybe it is just as well that seniors will have artificial intelligence companions in the future.  Empty emotional calories are better than no emotional calories.  And pretty soon, such AI companions will be the family that one can confide in and the family from whom one can receive good advice for all kinds of daily life situations.  Of course, there are all the robot workers who are replacing humans in the service sector.  In the near future, it may be common for many of us to go through the day participating in all of our daily life activities and not have to deal directly with another human.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow 


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