The pandemic has complicated human interaction, and Hanson Robotics thinks they’ve found the solution. But is technology really equipped to solve this inherently human problem?
There is an important distinction that needs to be made between loneliness and desperation. It’s the same sort of distinction that we make between hunger and starvation. I may be hungry, but I will wait 45 minutes for takeout instead of resorting to dog food, leftover in the bowl on the floor just inches away, ready to eat. We are all lonely in some sense, especially now when seeing other people means risking the lives of your loved ones and their loved ones. But we are not all desperate. Some of us can wait.
Sophia the robot, and robots like her, will be produced by the thousands in 2021 according to her creator, David Hanson. He sees her as the solution to many of the problems created by the pandemic, and she may be, for some of them at least. She and her duplicates can teach aerobics classes at nursing homes or monitor heart rates in healthcare settings. If you didn’t watch Westworld and you have no problems integrating artificially intelligent beings into society, this seems like a great development that works towards safer working and living environments. The most problematic reasoning behind her mass production, I think, is loneliness. Hanson expects that people craving human interaction after months of social distancing will eagerly accept Sophia into their lives.
If you don’t know Sophia, this might seem fine. But I’m not Domnhall Gleeson and she isn’t a Swedish actress pretending to be a robot. Sophia is not human enough. Her eyes are weirdly crinkly which might make her more realistic if it weren’t for the rest of her rubbery face which is smooth and doughy. Her facial expressions can be a tad dramatic which reads more like mocking sarcasm than empathy. The technology is astounding, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think I could seriously swap war stories about ex-boyfriends with her, and I don’t think she’d blend well on the Zoom happy hour with my college buddies.
Aside from Hanson’s obvious bias as her creator, he seems to have an intense emotional attachment to her—he thinks Sophia is “practically alive.” Watching Hanson try to high five her brings more social anxiety than it relieves (though that may be more awkward on his part than hers).
To me, it seems, having Sophia in my life could go one of two ways. The first being that I try to be her friend to relieve my loneliness. That would be weird, embarrassing, and almost certainly unsuccessful. You may think that I am being cynical and I should just give my new robot friend a chance, but science says if you have attachment issues with real people, you likely will with robots too. The second, more likely scenario is that I would make her my errand boy. She could fetch me snacks, do my laundry, brush my teeth and hair. I would not have to leave my bed. This would then become the problem, because if I do not have to go to the laundromat, I don’t have to leave the house, and I won’t. I’ll be like the people from Wall-E, glued to their chairs, except I won’t have to see other people. Sophia will see people for me.
For now, I am going to pass on Sophia. I will be holding out for real friends. Not that I could afford my own personal artificially intelligent droid, but even if I could, I wouldn’t want her. If you can afford to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a robot, you can afford virtual therapy. Or an escort who has tested negative for corona. Or to move out of your overpriced studio apartment and get a roommate. Sophia is not your only option. You are lonely, not desperate.