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“Her” Isn't a Fantasy: What Do We Get From a Virtual Friend?

Will computer-human relationships really work?

In the movie “Her,” dating and relationships between humans and operating systems were not considered unusual. It’s not giving away the plot of the movie to say that it involves the relationship between Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his OS. The movie is provocative and interesting, but it is portrayed as occurring in the future. In fact, the future is rapidly becoming the present.

A technology development group called Emoshape is developing what they call "the first A.I. home console," called EmoSpark. (A.I. refers to “artificial intelligence,” computers that think.) It's a device that uses facial recognition software as well as verbal input to understand our emotional responses, and to respond in a way designed to increase our happiness. It can do tasks and find information like other devices, but it also is designed to give us more nuanced personal feedback and even advice. It can even develop an emotional profile of its own. Assuming it works, this raises a fascinating question: to what degree could such a device meet a human need for relatedness?

Research dating back to the 1800’s and recent neuropsychological research indicates that people are “hardwired” for social relationships. Scientists since the late 1800’s have been aware of a physiological basis for empathy. We now specifically talk about “mirror neurons,” receptors in our brains that allow you to share someone else’s experience and emotions. These neurons operate based on visual stimuli; it’s important that this is a nonverbal interaction.  In fact, Nowiciki and Duke (1992) found that 70 - 90% of social/emotional communication is nonverbal. This “emotional” AI device might use cameras and sophisticated algorithms of facial recognition to understand our emotions. But... without nonverbal observable cues, we would not be able to fully return that empathy.

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We are sensory beings. We respond to multiple sensory experiences when we are together with another person: smell, touch, and taste as well as our visual and auditory senses. Harry Harlow’s experiments with rhesus monkeys in the 1960’s demonstrated their preference for tactile experience, even over food.  Since the late 1990’s research has discussed the role of our biological scents in sexual attraction and in early bonding between mother and child.  We use scent purposely when we use perfumed products; we sometimes describe each other as having a characteristic smell.  All these multi-sensory experiences of our relationships are stored in memory. When we have a long-term relationship, memories and our sense of shared history becomes a critical part of our bond. Can we truly experience shared history with something not embodied?

In “Her,” Samantha, the OS system, had a voice (with appropriate tone and expression) but no other sensory information. If EmoSpark is able to really understand our emotions, can we fully empathize with the emotions only verbally expressed by a cube? Will this be a two-way relationship?

The OS is programmed to only give us positive experiences.  If a person-OS relationship is one-way, based only on the emotions of the human, does EmoSpark encourage a kind of narcissism? Human relationships are messy because they involve the emotions and needs of two people. Theodore preferred his relationship with his OS to his blind date because she did not respond in a way that he liked.  A certain amount of narcissism is healthy, but too much narcissism is considered pathological. Edward Hallowell’s book “Connect” (1999) says emotional closeness, altruism and belonging to groups lengthens our lives; relationships that encourage too much self-focus don’t seem to me to provide these important benefits.

In any case, such an AI device would not prepare us for face-to-face social relationships with all their messiness and unpredictability. The title of a recent book by Jennifer Senior summarizes a key element of being a new parent: “All Joy and No Fun;” parenting has real joy, but its not always satisfying or fun. Real relationships don’t always make us happy or meet our needs.  To have genuine intimacy, we need to tolerate that. An abuse of this device would be to use it to replace actual human relationships. When we deal with other people, we learn to defer our own needs and to care about something larger than ourselves. Finding meaning in our connections and love doesn’t mean always being happy, totally agreeing or having all our needs met.

I know I will get comments that we all balance our technology and social media with personal relationships. That’s certainly true now. However, think about what we know as the news. At one point, we all heard the same new reports, and everyone had a similar baseline from which to form our differing opinions. Now we have choices, and many of us only seek out news that reinforces our views. In fact, many search engines are specifically designed only to give us the information we’re already looking for. Rather than looking for a challenge to force us to struggle with competing ideas, we prefer to feel validated. Is there going to be a similar effect with devices that simulate relationships and only echo what we need and think? Could we possibly end up like the main character in the movie “Her”? Can we imagine sharing intimacy with a device, or perhaps at some point, with an avatar, even one designed to stimulate our senses? I don’t think so, even given our increasing comfort with technology as an integral part of our lives. I think that most of us have a genuine need for embodied human relationships. Nonetheless, these new developments in technology are certainly something to think about. 

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D., is an attending faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Norwalk Hospital.

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