My dog is much more than something that barks and performs tricks. When she greets me at the door, she teaches me the value of companionship. When she’s hungry or wants to go out, she reinforces the responsibility that comes with caring for another living being. When she snuggles up to me on the couch, she is rewarding me for the trust I have earned from her. When she sleeps between me and my wife on the bed, and we are both holding her, she acts as a conduit between us that enhances my feelings of coexistence and connectedness. And when she ultimately moves on to doggie heaven – as all dogs do at some point in time – she will teach me an important lesson about grief and the cycle of life. As all my dogs have.
This, however, will teach me nothing: Robotic ‘Zoomer’ Performs Same Tricks as a Real Dog
A robot dog will never engender the mutual enjoyment of taking a walk around the block. It will never be associated with trust and loyalty. It will not inspire movies like Old Yeller and Benji, nor even a robot Rin Tin Tin. It will never serve to teach children about love and responsibility for other living things. Indeed, if a robot dog teaches them anything, it will be the superficial and fleeting attachment that comes from the attempt to replace real feelings, which take time and dedication to grow and nurture, with something cheap and artificial that can just be turned on for immediate gratification, and turned off at the least annoyance.
Which brings me to this: Human-Robot Relations: Why We Should Worry
Although the article highlights some concerns regarding the ongoing encroachment of manmade machines into human affairs, it seems to me that the real problem is not with the robots, but with some fundamental distain for humanity (and living things in general) that is feeding their development. When we replace a living dog with a robot simulacrum, we are accepting, in some sense, a depreciation of the feelings of connectedness and companionship that come from the hard work of caring for a living being. When we replace our teachers with computers, we are showing, in some sense, contempt for the human side of learning and mentorship. When we farm out the wellbeing of our elderly to electronic “caretakers,” we are expressing, in some sense, a disregard for the duty we have in repaying the love and devotion they undertook when raising and providing for us. And this is not insignificant. It affects the fundamental humanness that provides the framework for how we interact as individuals, and for our sense of community.
What need do I have for the person sitting next to me on the bus, or indeed, for learning about my community in general, if I can just pull up the GPS on my smartphone to figure out how to get where I’m going? What is so fearful about human interaction that it required the creation of a multi-billion dollar personal global positioning system to replace the simple asking of directions? And what is so troublesome about learning tolerance and patience for other human beings that it requires a multi-billion dollar investment in developing robot companions, just to hang out with? Indeed, do we have such fear that our children will abandon us, that we would rather invest in a multi-billion dollar research program to develop mechanical caretakers than simply teach them the mutual responsibility of caring for us when we get old, as we did for them when they were young?
I submit that it is not the machines we need to worry about: it is that person staring back at us in the mirror. The robot story is, and always will be, simply an allegory for how our society evolves in response to the dehumanizing manner through which we, as humans, implement technology. Their story is merely an echo of our story. But, within that story lies a lesson: If you have no feelings or commitment towards the people around you, then they will have no feelings or commitment towards you. And neither will the machines, once they get smart enough to figure that out.