Lindsay Blauvelt, SOC Website Reporter
October, 2012--It used to be children who set a place at the dinner table for their imaginary friends but in the world of digital technology there is a permanent place for SIRI at supper and she’s got the seat of honor.
Loyola’s second annual Symposium on Digital Ethics on Monday brought scholars of all kinds together to ask the questions that have arisen in the wake of a technological revolution that has put cell phones at the table and televisions in the bedroom.
The event, hosted by the Center for Digital Ethics, featured panels on topics like privacy, moral agency, technology in the classroom and keynote speaker Sherry Turkle, who spoke on the ethical implications of welcoming these high-tech companions into everyday life.
Turkle is the Current Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and has done extensive research on the newly emerging relationships between humans and their robotic counterparts. While naming these technologies as equals may be a bit extreme, Turkle’s presentation amply illustrated the increasingly intimate between man and machine.
Turkle said, “In my research one woman came up to me and said, ‘I really wouldn’t mind having a robot boyfriend, I just want some stability in my home, it’s okay with me that it’s not a real relationship.’'
It may seem a bit comical, however it’s closer to reality than may be expected. Just ten years ago, cell phones were still a growing trend. Now they sit on the nightstand because they can serve as an alarm clock, a nightlight and can fetch the weather report in the morning. But the real question here is whether or not it has impacted humans on a deeper level than making the morning commute a little more convenient.
“The ethical issues around that question are now coming to a very dramatic point because now we’re making machines that can actually pretend to feel,” Turkle said. “The older machines pretended to think and now they’re pretending to feel.”
Turkle referred to new technology like SIRI, the robotic secretary that comes standard on the iPhone 4S and is programmed to give surprisingly human responses to questions about her biography.
“The way I see it, we are tempted by technology that offers the allusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” Turkle said. “We’re asking more from technology than we are from each other. That’s not a comfortable human position; it’s not a comfortable ethical position.”
Examples from her research, including teens with separation anxiety from their phones, aptly demonstrated Turkle’s concern for the increasingly intermingled relationship.
“Do we deserve to be talking about these meaningful, important moments in our lives with something that can understand what it is to know loss, what it is to know life, ”Turkle asked. “Or are we content to play games at these key human moments?”
For older generations these notions of robot friends are parts of a science fiction novel. But for those ‘90s kids that grew up with Tamagotchis and baby dolls that can speak, it’s all a part of normal life.
Don Heider, Dean of the School of Communication and founder of the Center for Digital Ethics, said that the purpose of the center is to encourage discussions and research like Turkle’s work, but also to bridge the gap between the technology and the ways that it is used.
“The technology develops before our ability to make good decisions about it does,” Heider said. “So we have the technology and a few years later we think, was this a good idea? So we’re trying to close that gap a bit.”
For students especially, the idea of digital security is extremely important, as it’s common practice for employers to look at Facebook profiles and Google searches of potential employees.
“I think it’s great that the students come in as freshman and sophomores and they can start to think about some of these questions,” Heider said. “I think it has a really positive influence.”
Turkle added that it’s not just about being responsible users of technology, but using it in a way that maintains a sense of humanity.
“Why are we here? In terms of not just information but in terms of human experience, experience that motivates us, inspires us, makes us identify with our teacher; experience that makes us feel as though we’re passing down a legacy or the recipients of a legacy.”