Technology already has many human characteristics. Some are a byproduct of the human minds that created them; some are imposed by those who adopt it into their daily lives. But in a world filled with loneliness, can the advancement of artificial intelligence offer a friendly hand when it comes to solving the crushing void inside humanity?
AI is already there for us, arguably more than our own friends. Alexa waits to respond to our command and replies with no delay. Alexa’s AI siblings are there when we look for something on Netflix or shuffle through Spotify, hoping for a playlist to fit our mood. It’s even there at work to create content on our behalf.
Artificial intelligence cocoons our digital interactions and makes them intuitive. As a constant presence in our lives, it has the potential to transform into something more substantial. Is it possible during this journey to craft not only our ideal house-aid but our ideal friend too?
Can AI Cure Loneliness?
When the Coronavirus hit, and we were forced to shut our doors on the world, the uptake of communication technology was massive. The elderly tussled with tech to see their loved ones’ faces over the likes of FaceTime and Zoom. Tech giants profited overnight as their products became the lifelines of human connection.
And so we find ourselves in a bubble of self-inflicted loneliness. As we hide from one another, waiting for this deadly virus to subside, we learn more about how technology can alleviate negative emotions than ever before.
The BBC recently showed 92-year-old John Winward getting to grips with his first smart speaker: “I thought at first it was a sign of insanity, speaking to a little thing like that and him talking back!” John feels the effects of loneliness more than most after he lost his partner of 64 years. His final thoughts were profound: “I really love it. I couldn’t do without it now. It is certainly my friend in the corner.”
Using the word friend is a crucial distinction here, even if it happened to be a throwaway comment. It emulates the fondness that humans feel towards animals: the bird you feed every day or your dog lying on your bed. A “friend in the corner” is what everyone wants – a friend in their corner.
Animals have long been a comfort to humankind, but are limited in what they can offer. For instance, they don’t talk back (unless you ‘do’ their voice) and are dependent upon you for their needs. However, not everyone’s situation allows them to care for a pet. A machine, on the other hand, requires nothing from you. Can our affections extend to them in return for more intelligent interaction?
There’s a lot of debate about whether robots can ever truly become like humans because of their incapacity for values, experience, and judgment. But for friendship, maybe these qualities aren’t truly necessary.
When you’re alone and the postman smiling at you is the most human interaction you get in a day, are we in a situation to be picky? Many of us prefer face-to-face interaction, but with loneliness being as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and no ideal solution on the horizon, perhaps it’s time we look to imperfect solutions to soothe this universal ache.
What Is a Friendship Built On?
There are various types of friendships: friendships of utility, pleasure, and goodness. Aristotle used these differentiations to describe the motivation behind our attachments. Some are mere convenience and fueled by mutual gain; others are based on enjoying activities together, but fade away without that external stimulus.
The ‘best’ type of friendships have strong fundamentals: mutual respect and unselfish desire. We all know how unique and precious these friendships are, as they don’t come along very often.
We also know that friendship can have no rhyme or reason. Think of a lion grooming baby chick rather than chomping down on it. But what benefit do we gain from ranking the importance of friendships? It’s essential to ensure neither party is being taken advantage of, but beyond that, as long as it brings you happiness, does it really matter? If you only hang out with someone because you want someone to play golf with, and AI can replicate that and become your chess partner, your experience isn’t devalued because one is a machine.
Crafting Friendships With Technology
We all have those friendships where we can’t remember how they even started, and to be honest, you can’t understand how you’ve put up with them for this long. An AI-powered friend would bring with it the possibility of programming what you want your ideal friend to be like. Kind? Funny? Sarcastic? It would open up the doors to crafting personality – a dangerous territory and one that questions what it means to be human.
An AI friend would be purely simulation. After all, machines are synthetic and only have specific responses – but they have perfect recall and can learn from their interactions. As humans, we can suspend our beliefs for entertainment. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to extend this to robot friendships if the need is high enough.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline depicts a world where humans log in to a virtual world to escape a broken reality. Human personality is condensed into avatars that roam around a digital universe. The people in the simulation are aware of what it is, yet find joy because the alternative is worse. In theory, this notion could be reversed. For a world in which human interaction is absent, one could trade in their beliefs for something of value.
Building a Metaverse may be something that is on the horizon. Described as ‘the next version of the internet,’ this persistent and active online space is something big tech companies have been considering for years. The creation of this alternate universe has become more of a ‘when’ than an ‘if,’ so it’s likely we’ll get to see sci-fi dreams come to life.
The Moral Debate
Turning to machines for friendship brings bundles of moral issues. An example of this, in a nutshell, is the debate around manners: a machine won’t be offended if you don’t say thank you, and it won’t refuse to answer you without a, please. So, should you bother being polite to a machine? Is it more of a reflection of your own character if you’re rude?
This is a particularly hot topic with parents and children; some think it’s important because they want them to respect everyone. There are even smart speakers out there designed specifically to teach kids their manners; Google itself has a ‘politeness feature’ which reinforces polite behavior with ‘delightful responses.’ As we try to grow into a society that accepts everyone regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, should this extend to machines too? Do you have to have a soul to qualify as deserving respect and equality?
As the lines between humans and machines continue to blur, there’s also the question of whether viewing AI as a friend could have adverse effects. Mike Elgan from Fast Company argues against teaching children to be polite to Alexa by stating: “we don’t want children to view Alexa as a friend or having human characteristics and forming attachments that will make forming skepticism later on more difficult.” This suggests that one day machines may want to hoodwink us, putting those who use them in danger. But first, we have to give them power. Giving them personalities treads into this territory – but we never suggested the ride would be an easy one.
The ‘Ultrahouse 3000’ Fear
The Simpsons are always in the media for predicting something. It’s Ultrahouse 3000 creation encapsulates this ‘living house’ fear that Alexas and Google Homes have started to toe into. Its Treehouse of Horror XII episode features a fully-automated house that can speak, cook, clean, and socially interact. Marge is initially thrilled at the extra help, but the Ultrahouse 3000 ends up meeting its demise when it falls in love with her and attempts to kill Homer, as a result.
Here, AI is used as an idea for a horror story – a tale where computers are the enemy and threaten our human relationships. This is also an excellent example of how pop culture is still at the extremes of representing AI: it’s either a considerable danger and destroying lives or can be our best friend in the form of a robot. AI doesn’t have to be romanticized or turned into a horror story. It could be a simple solution to the swelling black hole of isolation, fueled by social media, that’s ripping through our human connections.
Can We Create an Ideal Friendship With AI?
AI has the potential to intrude further into our lives; Whether we let it is up to us. The blurring of boundaries between man and machine may not be an entirely negative thing when humanity’s faults are leaving people to die alone. If a robot can bring comfort and even simulated warmth, we shouldn’t be in such a rush to slam the lid on giving them personalities.
There are dangers as it creeps close to the fundamentals of what it means to be human, but a little short-sightedness here may be necessary to plug this gap. Allowing machines to make us feel special – a kind word here, a personalized response there – could be a new friendship we need rather than desire. Tailoring artificial intelligence to our human needs is not an ideal solution, but when humans don’t step up to the plate for other humans, machines may be all we have.
If you came back to a warm home, dinner made, the bath run, and the lights on, would you care who’d done it for you?
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