Sherry Turkle is a professor at MIT who views artificial intelligence and technology through a sociological and psychological lens. In the first half of her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, Turkle addresses the impact of technology on older adults. Technology advances such as robotics and assistive technology are making headway in society, especially in elder care. These new technologies can provide some comfort or care for older adults with chronic diseases. Turkle’s focus, however, is on the substitution of robots for human interaction and the emotional aspect of care performed by another human being.
Turkle conducts experiments where she brings different types of robotic technology such as AIBO, My Real Baby, and Paro the Seal into nursing homes. These robotics provide companionship and not practical assistance. For instance, many older adults began speaking to their robots, going over important life events and reminiscing about old times. They found that spending time with the robot reduces anxiety and isolation. The impact of My Real Baby, an “interactive learning doll”, was particularly significant in experiments because it gave older adults a sense of purpose. The My Real Baby doll needed comfort, changing, and other activities that made older adults feel needed (105). This promotes higher quality of life for older people.
Turkle also conducts research involving children, where children discuss the role of robotic technology in their lives. The children profiled in the book worry about technology replacing real human interaction. One child says, “that grandparents might love the robot more than you… They would be around the robot so much more.” (75). Another child worries “that if a robot came in that could help her [grandmother] with falls, then she might really want it… she might like it more than me.” (75). In her discussion of experiments conducted in nursing homes with the doll, My Real Baby, Turkle finds that older adults do not want to give the doll back at the end of the experiment (111). One grandmother even ignores her grandchild who is visiting to take care of the hungry doll (118).
What Turkle does best in this book sharply contrasts the ideal situation of having loving children or family who can visit and provide social interaction to the reality of isolation in many older adults. While Turkle acknowledges the barriers to artificial intelligence and technology as companionship for older adults, they surpass the alternative of no social interaction at all. She notes, “If the elderly are tended by underpaid workers who seem to do their jobs by rote, it is not difficult to warm to the idea of a robot orderly”. (p. 107). She then points out that when given the choice between interacting with robots and interacting with a member of the research team, almost all of the older adults chose a member of the research team (p. 105). At the end of the day, these robots are not capable of producing the same amount of interaction and support as a human being. Turkle muses, “An older person seems content; a child feels less guilty. But in the long term, do we want to make it easier for children to leave their parents? Does the ‘feel-good moment’ provided by the robot deceive people into feeling less need to visit?” (p. 125). Robots providing clinical care may be an ideal solution to the shortage of workers caring for an aging population, but are no replacement for social interaction.
Grace Mandel is the project manager for the Baltimore Fall Reduction Initiative Engaging Neighborhoods and Data (BFRIEND) at the Baltimore City Department of Health.
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