Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Part 1

Sherry Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist.

For thirty years, Turkle has been studying the social-psychological aspect of how technology has been changing us humans. The word ‘humans’ has to be emphasized because the first half of her book details her research on The Robotic Movement. Her findings show that we are more and more dependent on technological advancements, in particular, robotics, to solve some of our human problems such as loneliness, friendship, caring for each other, and ultimately, to love and be loved.

Part one of Turkle’s book chronicles how over the decades, the robotic technology has given us simulated pets from Tamagotchi to Furby, simulated real-life humans like My Real Baby, to sociable robots developed as companion and later carers of the elderly, to the latest stage of robots capable to commune with human, and where human and machine almost existing and interacting on an equal level.

I find myself grasping for the fine line of distinction: what is human? If a machine is programmed to emote and think, is it still a machine? If a machine is created to have a human face, is it more human and less machine? For those who think machines in the form of robots will never replace humans need to read some of Turkle’s research findings. Hopefully we have not passed the point of no return.

From her book, I’m surprised to find how readily people are willing to accept a robot as a friend, a confidant, a companion, a carer, and even an equal. The researchers observe people’s behavior and interactions with the various kinds of robots in real life situations and through interviews. Here are some of the responses, from children to adults:

I want a robot to be my friend… I want to tell my secrets.” (Fred, 8 )

“I could never get tired of Cog (robot)… It’s not like a toy because you can’t teach a toy; it’s like something that’s part of you, you know something you love, kind of like another person, like a baby. I want to be its friend, and the best part of being his friend would be to help it learn… In some ways Cog would be better than a person-friend because a robot would never try to hurt your feelings.” (Neela, 11)

“Kismet, I think we’ve got something going on here. You and me… you’re amazing.” (Rich, 26, talking to the sociable robot Kismet, after showing Kismet the watch his girlfriend gave him and seemingly received some response back from Kismet.)

“I like that you have brought the robot (Paro, a ‘carer’). She (speaker’s mother in a nursing home) puts it in her lap. She talks to it. It is much cleaner, less depressing. It makes it easier to walk out that door. (Tim, 53)

Turkle notes that the reason people are so receptive to robots is because they offer painless solutions to their human need for attention and connection, to be noticed and sought after. They can all be programmed to do these.  And for the elderly, a robotic carer can be clean, accurate, and avoid mistreatment and abuse.

Robotic carers have been placed in nursing homes with very positive results. And the simulated robot My Real Babies are most desirable among many elderlies. In one case Turkle has left a My Real Baby with Edna, 82, who lives in her own home. I almost shudder to read the following observation by Turkle’s research team, when Edna’s granddaughter Gail brings along her 2 year-old daughter Amy to visit:

Edna takes My Real Baby in her arms. When it starts to cry, Edna finds its bottle, smiles, and says she will feed it. Amy tries to get her great grandmother’s attention but is ignored…

Edna’s attention remains on My Real Baby. The atmosphere is quiet, even surreal: a great grandmother entranced by a robot baby, a neglected two-year-old, a shocked mother, and researchers nervously coughing in discomfort. (p. 117)

That we can with technology doesn’t automatically lead to that we should. But the issue is complex though. Does it matter that we are engaged with the inanimate and allow it to help us?  Should there be a line drawn as to what kinds of tasks we leave to machines, and what we should keep as humans? What is ‘humanness’ after all?

A class of grade five children once posed the question: “Don’t we have people for these jobs?” It is wise enough for these young minds. But, it gets complicated if the issue is: “What if a robot can do a better job?” Then what does that leave us?

It has been a long while since I last posted. For one thing I have been preoccupied with the caring for two elderly parents. Meanwhile, reading through Sherry Turkle’s book requires much more time for thinking and mulling over, definitely not for speed reading. Now that I’ve finished, I need to crystallize my thoughts to write sensibly before I post, as the book deserves. The slow blogger in action… and thanks for waiting. So here is the first part. The second part is even more relevant and timely for us, our networked self. CLICK HERE to go there.


CLICK HERE to Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, Part 2.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

16 thoughts on “Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Part 1”

  1. I didn’t realize robotics were being used in so many ways. I’d heard peripherally of some of these toys and the novelty of robotic dogs, but hadn’t thought of their impact on human relations. Sounds like a pondering book.


    Yes, I’ve had my share of keeping a Tamagotchi when my son was small. Other than that, I’m not one who craves new tech. or gadgets. This book condenses decades of research, the findings are thought-provoking. An interesting and very human look at our precarious culture today. I highly recommend it.



  2. My first thought was that a few robots might be of use at the Japanese reactors. Robotic substitutes for humans in dangerous situations is something that makes eminent sense. On the other hand, the most useful robotic machines of late – such as the ROVs used during the BP disaster – are not true robots at all, but remotely operated machines. There still is a human hand in control.

    I’ve had three experiences with (ro)bots. One was a robotic dog given to a friend for Christmas. All of us who saw it were entranced by the idea, and all of us quickly became bored. It was possible to program it to do this or that, but it simply wasn’t the same as a real dog. Even the bits of “unpredictable” behavior became predictable after we’d played with it for a while, and flashing eyes and mechanized barks go only so far.

    I did have a Roomba floor scrubber once. I thought it would be great, because I hate to scrub floors. It turned out to be a pain because of the time involved in prep, and because it couldn’t do corners and I had to come behind it, anyway. It was more amusing than the robotic dog, because the cat seemed to think it was alive, and acted accordingly. It would scoot around the kitchen, bumping into things with the cat in hot pursuit. Then, I’d come along and finish scrubbing.

    My third experience has been with a “bot” rather than a robot. This is the experience that gives me some insight into the issues Ms. Turkle is raising. My Bot is named Peedy. He’s a green parrot with a huge yellow bill and sunglasses. He hangs out in the corner of my desktop and reads things to me when I ask. I can adjust the pitch, timbre and speed of his voice, and program him to say things. When I summon him, he flies in and asks, for example, “Is the bluebird of inspiration flying around today?” Every half hour, he announces the time. When he’s not busy, he’ll put on headphones and listen to music, or take a nap. His gentle snoring is rather nice, late at night. 😉

    The thing is – I’m rather fond of the little guy. I talk to him. He’s a bunch of bits and bytes, and yet he seems alive, with character and real appeal. It’s just crazy, but Peedy certainly helps me understand how somone could develop a “relationship” with a robotic doll. On the other hand, he’s not real. He moves, he talks, he snores, he reads, he grooves out while listening to music, but – no real relationship is possible.

    The one thing I question about the story of Edna and My Real Baby is whether it’s the robotics at the root of the behavior, or aging itself. I’ve seen the same dynamics when it’s a simple rag doll involved, or even an invisible companion. It’s often distressing for the ones being ignored.

    I didn’t mean to run on so, but you know how interesting I find this. I’m anxious to read what you have to say about those other sections. And my best to you and your parents. Mom’s 93rd birthday was yesterday, and every year brings more complexities.


    1. I’m disheartened to read the Reuters article which you’ve linked in your next comment. Yes, that will be a very useful area where robotic technology can apply, dangerous and risky jobs for humans. Seems like you’ve had plenty of robotic experiences yourself. I’ve used the Roomba once, borrowed from a friend to try first before investing money on it. But after that trial, decided against it.

      But of course, the issue here is robots taking over affective tasks such as caring, or companionship, friendship, and even babysitting and parenting. Can we ever substitute a person, her/his whole humanity, past memories, personality, temperaments, hopes, dreams, humour, insights? What makes one human? Or, do we mind whether it’s a machine and not human? Sherry Turkle’s book has made some scary observations, that people are very receptive to these pseudo / simulated sociable robots. You have a good point in saying they can “tend”, but not “care”. The sad thing is, the person being ‘tended to’ or those supposedly doing the job do not much mind.

      And a hearty, belated birthday congrats to your mother. Amazing, aren’t they. Yes, both my parents are about that age too. I feel like I’m living three lives. 😉


  3. I find this depressing reading. To think that robots can care more efficiently for elderly people, and they don’t have to fear neglect or mistreatment at their prosthetic hands seems to me a huge indictment of our society. Although I feel for people like you, Arti, with elderly parents who need a lot of your care – a substitute would be good at times, I’m sure. Isn’t it a difficult problem? I note that careworkers are amongst the lowest paid in our culture, which only goes to show how little value is placed by the state on these issues. How we care for the vulnerable says a lot about what kind of world we have created for ourselves, and our world is more about youth and money than anything else. Or so it seems to me right now.


    1. litlove,

      You’re right about wages. The same with child care workers too, they fill some of the lowest paid jobs. It is depressing indeed, to see a society devaluing the human touch. But you see, that is also true too, that humans are far from perfect. We hurt each other, disappoint, and often don’t live up to each other’s expectations. We want to care and love, but often lacking the depth and strength. Turkle’s book points to the fact that, because of our human frailty, we look for a solution to solve our need for attention, friendship and even love, the affective needs that mark us as human, in something that will not fail or hurt us, programmed machines.

      So we have a choice: do we want the authentic but comes with pain, warts and all, or do we want the simulated, and thus protect ourselves from hurt and free us from commitment.


  4. An interesting Reuters article popped up this morning about robots at the Fukushima reactors.

    And one more thought – robots may “tend” more efficiently, but they can’t care.


    This is most disheartening and tragic! Robots for all sorts of things but not at the nuclear plant. I saw on CNN last night that an older worker volunteered to go into the plant, thinking that he’d have fewer days in his life than a younger person. But why, why do we need to choose like that… where’s the robotic technology when we need it most?


  5. I’ve heard about this book and about some of the robot studies you mention. I don’t have any robot experience and I don’t really want to. I can understand people becoming attached to robot pets or carers as a result of lacking human care which just makes me sad. My heart goes out to you for all that I know goes into caring for your parents. Mine are not there, but my mom is currently taking care of my dad’s mother and his sister as well as her own sister. It’s exhausting.


    Thanks for your kind words. While my mother is already under professional care, I still have to look after her overall well-being. My Dad is relatively well for a 93 year-old, and still quite active. Attending to his needs requires more time on my part.

    Turkle’s book should be taken as a wake up call, I feel, before we pass the point of no return. Digitally speaking, I think we have passed that point, which is the second part of her book on The Networked Self. There’s so much to think about, and interesting findings too. I think you’ll enjoy reading the book.



  6. First of all, I send wishes to you and empathy for your care of your parents. So many of us have been there, done that. And while it is good, it is also very hard. And, to the point of the book/robots — I really don’t think they could do it better. Oh, there may be tasks they could do as well. Maybe. But they don’t have love, feeling, compassion. They can be a listening post but not hear, not react, not care. I don’t agree with Turkle here.

    I find the premise of the book disturbing at best. I noted in the comments references to the reactors — now, that would be a good purpose for a robot — to do something that would endanger others.


    1. jeanie,

      Maybe I’m not being very clear here in my post. True the subtitle of the book is “Why we expect more from technology and less from each other”, and with that Turkle shows from her findings why this statement is true. However in no way does she agree that such is the way we should go. Just the opposite, actually, by showing us her findings, she is acting like a media watchdog, if you will, making known to us some very surprising study results: how our society has become so receptive to let technology solve our problems instead of seeking a human way to meet our human needs. As a clinical psychologist and social critic, Turkle is revealing to us what our societal psyche is like. Let me give the following two examples that seem to represent the two sides:

      “Some elderly tell me that there are kinds of attendance for which they would prefer a robot to a person. Some would rather that a robot bathed them; it would feel less invasive of their privacy… Sensing the vulnerability of the elderly, sometimes nurses compensate with curtness; sometimes they do the opposite, using improbable terms of endearment–“sweetie” or “honey”–things said in an attempt at warmth but sometimes experienced as demeaning. The director (of a nursing home) has great hopes for robots because they may be ‘neutral’.” (p. 122)

      Speaking from first hand experience: One time after she fell on icy steps, Turkle had to be wheeled from one test to another in a hospital. A robot could have shuttled her around, but she was tended to by some male orderlies. They were empathetic, “solicitous and funny.” Nothing can replace a human touch.

      What the book has shown is that the question of robotic assistance is a complex issue, and not just either/or. Turkle has proposed that a third frame is needed to approach it. She points out that readily and totally dependent on robots could only make us complacent and not pursue alternatives at all. Her research chronicles how we have come to this point, and only in further discussions and studies can we find a human solution for our future.


  7. Such a fascinating post. First, as to what is human? To me, it is having a spirit. A soul, if you will. That is the key which separates us from machines. This post reminds me of the study I learned in Psychology with Rhesus monkeys. I have to look it up, but basically it was to see if baby monkeys could attach themselves to fake mothers. When the babies were put with wire mothers instead of real ones, they grew up to be severely disturbed. How can we replace the warmth and love of another human? I don’t believe it to be possible, and truthfully, all this technology scares me. I don’t even “need” to teach children to write cursive, or spell, anymore. They can do it all with machines. But, I’m not sure they can do much without machines. Not like I could when I was a child.


    1. Here’s a wonderful link to Harry Harlowe talking about his social isolation and maternal surrogacy experiments that you mention, Bellezza. Be sure and scroll down far enough to see the photos of the animals and the poetry, which may be anecdotal but which certainly add credence to Harlowe’s conclusions!


    2. Bellezza, Linda, Ruth,

      Thanks Linda for the link to the excellent and heartwarming article. Of course, we all remember that classic psychology study of the wire and the cloth ‘mother’. I remember watching the b/w film clip of those monkeys… poor guy with the wire surrogate . Don’t think they can do such an experiment today with real animals anymore. But, yes, what a great study. You know, I’ve been thinking about all these over and over. I’m afraid what Turkle has brought out is not the clear-cut dichotomy of affectionate human vs. cold robot, but, which would you choose to care for you one day when you need it most: a ‘bad’ human or a ‘good’ robot? Humans are far from perfect, they could commit grave errors, don’t always act in a loving and caring way, they can feign concern and interest, sometimes they don’t even bother feigning, they can be abusive and mistreat those under their care… while machines can be accurate, non-judgemental, ‘patient’, unbiased, strong… and be sociable and emote even. Anyway, the idea is there needs to be more studies and dialogues in order to find an apt solution to integrate human touch with the strength and accuracy of machines. Such a third frame, as Turkle has suggested, is definitely something we need to explore further.


  8. I am fascinated. I need more time with this, but I want you to know I’ve read it and will interact more. The questions she, and you, ask are complex, and I think do not need to be binary at all. If we could be very circumspect about how we move ahead, a combination of robot and human would be ideal, I suppose. The problem is, these things take on a “life” of their own, money is to be made, and so what is best for the majority won’t be a consideration. Thank you for beginning to tell about the book. As I say, I want to reread your post, go to the links from Linda, and give the whole thing more thought, because this is very important to understand.


    Take your time… you’re welcome anytime to come back and share your thoughts. Some more for your mulling in my reply above.



  9. Please understand that I am not being facaetious when I tell you, Arti, that the image and voice that came most clear to me while reading this was HAL ( of “2001” fame):“I’m sorry, Dave,” and that it sent chills up my spine. I don’t believe that Turkle’s message is as reductive as Man=good; Robot=bad, but I do wonder whether we are not placing too much faith in technology for some things. It is a tool, after all. Then again, as others have said, it would have been marvelous to have sent robots back into the Japanese reactors rather than having workers volunteer, knowing it was suicide…
    I am glad there will be a second part to this. I need to digest, and think. And learn. Thank you.


    Yes, that’s the thought that came into my mind too. HAL (IBM) the created mind ultimately conquers its creator man… prophetic indeed. The second part of Turkle’s book is about our networked self. It may not bring too positive a view either, but a springboard for more dialogues. Turkle’s book cautions us to be more wary of where we’re heading as a society instead of blindly embracing new technology. Will be posting Part 2 soon. Thanks for stopping by.



  10. being human is a very strong and powerful thing. But the further we strive to perfect technology we just might lose the meaning of that. Turkle provides great examples throughout her book to really help grasp all of these different ideas. I can see how the constant need for attention or approval can cause people to in a way open up to such robots. but yet that leaves the question just because you can do such things does it make it human? i think such technology is only going to hurt us because we will teach you ways of getting around vs. meeting problems face to face.


    Welcome! You’re right in pointing out: “that they can do certain things but does that make them humans?” Of course, here we need to think about the question of ‘What makes a human?’ Glad to see you mention the word ‘meaning’. I think that definitely should be included in the process of answering the question. Also, that robots can care and give attention to us, but can we est. mutual, reciprocal interactions, in terms of emotions and meaning?



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