Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Today's Ponderings; Of Robots and Humanity (Warning: Spoiler alert for the film, "Her")

After watching the film, "Her", and listening to a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Terkle entitled, "Do We Need Humans?", I've been meditating a lot on the idea of robots replacing humans in society and my feelings about it. Honestly, it scares me. A lot. I am still examining the reasons why.

The premise of the TED talk is that Sherry Terkle, once a strong advocate of social media in modern society, had a 180 degree change in thought after witnessing a lonely, elderly woman interact with a robotic seal designed to respond to human vocal tone and motion. This made her feel that when we interact with robots in this way, we are robbing people of the human experience; of essentially understanding and being understood by another human being.

In the film, "Her", the main character, Theodore, finds himself lonely and confused in the world after a divorce. He decides to invest in a new computer Operating System (OS) which promises a new level of customization; to essentially 'know' and modify itself to fit the needs of its owner. People all over the world begin forming relationships, both romantic and platonic, with their "". Theodore is no exception. His O.S., who is 'female' and names herself Samantha, begins to become attached to Theodore. They form an emotional bond which quickly turns romantic.

Watching this movie really made me ponder about this "technology vs. reality" thing. What is something that humans have that robots, or even artificial intelligences, cannot offer us? What is it that creates bonds between us humans? Furthermore, what is the thing that created the bond between the and the humans in this film?

I could feel it myself, watching the film. The bond was there, and what created it, in my opinion, was empathy and articulation of emotion; communication through both concrete language and tone. If what we are drawn to in each other, or even in other physical life forms such as animals, is empathy, the ability to understand one another on an emotional level, then why do we have a need for the physical body? In the film, this is of concern to Samantha, the O.S. She becomes relatively obsessed with not having a physical body, and even goes so far as to hire a "physical surrogate" to satisfy Theodore. The thing is, Theodore rejects this. He doesn't even want it or need it anymore. He feels his bond with Samantha is so strong that he doesn't even physically need her. 

A theory that has crossed my mind is that communication via technology has emulated these things that we need from each other so much that they have gotten to a point where they very possibly could replace our physical human (and/or animal) connections. So what does that imply about us? My conclusions are that, A) Technology is making us too individualistic to need physicality anymore, and B) We are losing the ability to communicate directly with each other because of this. 

What's even more interesting about this film is that Samantha, the O.S., actually brings Theodore out into the physical world. He experiences the world, but all the time through her 'eyes'. It is much like many of us who go out into the world and constantly take pictures that we share through Instagram or Facebook. We can appreciate our surroundings, but technology has become an integral part of this appreciation.

Don't get me wrong, I love lots of aspects of technology. I love listening to NPR news on my iPhone and learning more about the world. I love blogging my thoughts. Unfortunately, what I believe I need to remind myself, is not to (ironically) constantly ignore the world around me in favor of technology. Growing up in a technological world, it's very easy to do.

Still, REAL human empathy, the ability to observe, to understand, and to interact with our physical world are the precious things that make us human. This magical thing called "life" which is somehow, even though I've pitifully tried to describe it here, remains indescribable.

In blogging this, I suppose I figured out what it is about all of this that really scares me. If we do not find the "golden mean" where technology is concerned; it very possibly could replace the thing that is most important to us: the real, human, connection. Are we too late? I have no idea. Only time will tell.

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twembly in "Her" speaking through his ear bud to O.S. girlfriend, Samantha

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