Our Robotic Moment: Turkle Says We Should Be Reframing the Questions about Technology and Our Humanity
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Humanoid robot ASIMO directs the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (photo by: Honda, Ars Electronica/Flickr)
"The options are given in the description of the situation. We can call this the package problem. In the real world, situations are not bundled together with options. In the real world, the act of framing — the act of describing a situation, and thus of determining that there’s a decision to be made — is itself a moral task. It’s often the moral task. Learning how to recognize what is and isn’t an option is part of our ethical development…In life, the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”
In her latest book Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle cites this passage from Kwame Anthony Appiah's Experiment in Ethics to raise an important point about context and decision-making. She is concerned about the way we set up such important social questions, “quandaries” she calls them, such as: “Do you want seniors lonely and bored, or do you want them engaged with a robotic companion?” A “robotic companion,” in fact, may not be the only solution or even a viable one to “lonely and bored.”
She wants to make sure we’ve considered moral issues not only when setting up a quandary, but also when responding to it. And as Appiah suggests, how you frame and respond to a quandary is a moral issue that is part of a person’s moral development and obligation. Turkle takes on this task by questioning how we think about our relationship with technology.
In our show this week (title "Alive Enough?"), Sherry Turkle asks how we can shape technology to serve human purposes and not the other way around. During one poignant moment of the interview, she tells a story about how children and others have reframed one of the most fundamental questions of reality, about recognizing “aliveness” and having a new kind of pragmatism about how alive something needs to be for its purpose.
"By the time of the Darwin exhibit in 2006 I think, my daughter saw a Galapagos turtle which had been brought up from the islands, this was the life that Darwin saw. And she looks at this turtle…and she looks at me and she says, because this turtle is sleeping, she says ‘for what this turtle is doing, they could have just had a robot.’ And it struck me that from her point of view, the fact that it was alive mattered not at all.”
The package problem around technology is that most people simply want to ask whether it’s good or bad for us, and not how it changes us. How it changes us can be as complex and as fundamental as how we recognize life’s worth.
About the image: (lower right) A giant Galápagos tortoise on display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin exhibition. The diorama was labeled with a “Live!” sticker. (photo: Andrew D. Miller/Flickr)
What’s Your Chance Encounter with Difference?
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Our thought experiment for the week: draw on your own memories of a simple human encounter — unlikely relationships with non-like-minded people — that you may not have pondered as formative and important.
Listen to Anthony Appiah's story — recounted in the audio above (mp3, 1:17) — about his neighbor. Before he became a renowned philosopher, he described himself as a “lefty” kid who became very fond of a “right-wing” neighbor and member of British Parliament despite their very disparate views. And it was luck that brought the pair together.
How might we encourage or inspire these kinds of encounters in our own lives, or for our children? Share your thoughts here and let’s talk about these chance encounters together.
And for those of you who prefer to read it rather than hear it, here’s the transcript:
"One of the great lessons of my childhood of which I’m extremely grateful for was that, when my grandmother got older, she moved from the bigger house that she lived in into the cottage next door and she sold the big house to a man who was a member of the British Parliament and was very right-wing, but extremely nice and very nice to me.
You know, I had a subscription to the Soviet News and the Peking Review. I was a young lefty, but he was incredibly nice to me. He was not only nice, but he was willing to talk to me about politics and he was willing to let an 18-year-old whatever I was — young man — talk to him about politics and say things that he obviously thought were, you know, and he told me what he thought. He was frank. I mean, he didn’t pretend to believe things that he didn’t believe.
I learned a lot. I had to admit that I liked this guy even though I thought he was wrong about everything, and that was luck. It was luck that I had that experience when I was young.”
About the image above: Anthony Appiah in his late teens circa the time he met his new neighbor. (courtesy of Anthony Appiah)