Ich and Du – in the times of technology

I am part of a generation that was raised with bare minimum technology and the one who is raising the next generation that calls out “Alexa” for anything and everything. I understand – the transition seems a bit too much to take in, but more than anything else I quite too often wonder about “What relationship would mean in the long run?”,  “Is it okay to refer Alexa as a “it” or Should Alexa be referred as “she”?  Is it possible for someone to fall in love with a virtual assistant like in the movie “Her” and if so is it indeed love? We are still grappling over the what’s okay and what’s not okay about a Human-Machine relationship.

We are still grappling over the what’s okay and what’s not okay about a Human-Machine relationship.

No wonder the AI circle still is debating as to whether bots should present themselves as humans or machines. This is because the more they resemble humans the more complicated our interaction with them gets. For instance, speaking to Alexa doesn’t require a “please” or a “thank you”, being rude to Alexa doesn’t lead to a confrontation. So, are kids who have been interacting with Alexa getting the cues that it’s okay to be rude to a female voice in general?

Definitely personification is good for the businesses as it leads to more stickiness with the customer but isn’t it also important to look at the broader impact? Unlike Siri, Cortana or Alexa, Google virtual assistant deliberately has no humanized identity – it’s simply called Google Assistant.  This was a conscious decision to align its functionality with a broader concept of helpfulness (Google Assistant gets things done) as opposed to friendliness (Google assistant isn’t your friend).

Am I mulling over something that’s too trivial? Or should we be more careful while we build and interact with intelligent machines?

Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT in her book “Alone Together” examines the world of robots, especially those designed to be friends, companions, pets or helpers to human. She writes that from her extensive observation, when children grow up with “sociable robots,” such as Furbies, they learn to be content with “relationships with less.” They are shaped by and satisfied by relationships that are completely uni-directional.

Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. – Sherry Turkle 

They get used to relationships that are fully tuned to make them feel good without demanding anything in return. But real relationships don’t work that way. Real relationships are messy. The capacity for real intimacy is measured in one’s capacity for handling conflict and vulnerability. So here we are now seeking  intimacy, but without the mess.

The capacity for real intimacy is measured in one’s capacity for handling conflict and vulnerability.

However, if relationship with machines are more hassle free – why not have friendships and companionship with intelligent machines? Human relationships are way too complicated. Is that a fair enough counter argument? 

To understand why human relationships are important, let me refer to German–Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s  classic book Ich and Du, usually translated as I and Thou (you).

In this book, he makes a radical distinction between two basic kinds of relationships of which humans are capable of – described as “I-Thou”  and “I-It”.

  • I-Thou designates a relation between subject and subject, a relation of reciprocity and mutuality. We relate with the entirety of our being to another whole person.
  • I-It is the relation between subject and object, involving some form of utilization or control. In I-It type of relationships we relate to others as members of  a certain category, as instruments of achievement or to be used for one’s own benefit. These relationships are superficial and need based. So many of our human relationships if we closely observe would be the I-It relationships.

True love is always a I-Thou connection. Quoting Martin Buber – “Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its ” content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this, does not know love.” 

Coming back to our relationship with intelligent machines, let’s be aware that we can only have a  “I-It” relationship with our social-intelligent machines. We cannot have a deep “I-Thou” relationship with machines no matter how intelligent they get. Even if we “thou” the machine, the machine won’t “thou” us back because it just runs on machine learned algorithms.

An  AI  engaged life is  the way forward – there is no second thoughts about it. We as mankind would definitely benefit from the advancements in AI. But let’s be careful as we surround ourselves with more and more “I-It” relationships, that there is a chance of our capacity for “I-Thou” relationships getting diminished. The capacity for “I-Thou” relationships is what makes us truly human. As we create and shape these intelligent tools, let’s not forget – we are also getting shaped by these tools. Amen!

“We are shaped by our tools.” ― Sherry Turkle

One Comment Add yours

  1. R Mohan says:

    I had the pleasure of absorbing this Soul Café blog post as I sipped my morning coffee. It tickled a lot more neurons in the brain than did the caffeine (well, caffeine takes 10 minutes to kick in anyway). The warning at the end of the post is very wise. We just do not know how interactions with a system having perceived intelligence shape our interactions with sentient beings. Perhaps the earliest reference to such material interactions are found in the Vedas which offer the dictum – “Do not criticize food; it’s an ordinance”. Similar dictum follows for our interactions with parents, teachers etc. We respect books, seeing in them the Goddess of Learning, Sarasvati. So the metaphysics of that age did not really distinguish between I-It and I-Thou since the material emanations from the Supreme Being are the ones that evolved into sentient beings during the last stages, which science seems to think anyway albeit not subjecting it to an intelligent cause. The element of non-difference between the effects (as well as that between cause and effect) are heavily dialecticised in our philosophical debates. As we see machines evolving to an extent that mimic humans in shape, form, names, communication, perceived intelligence and apparent personality, could we continue to harbor a sense of distinction? Would I be considered naive if I feel gratitudinous towards a helping hand (or voice) of Siri? Or does it betray how I feel when I, as an experiencer, have a certain experience in a given situation? More than the distinction between the helped and the helper, it’s the unifying moment in the situation that shapes my attitudes and tendencies. If I take such care as to respond differently to help received from an intelligent machine and that from a human, my sense of doctored outpouring would be very shallow. If we experience life by staying afloat all the time, would the sum total of all our experiences lack depth thereby making it meaningless? Or do we feel the acceptance of something humane even in material interactions and allow ourselves to be vulnerable just like in “Her”? Or would a large population climb the ladder of philosophical maturity and have dispassionate transactions with humans and machines alike? Could this be the stepping stone in the global evolution of mankind? Even in the corporate world, it’s only when you, as a leader, have nurtured people to raise up to your level, are promoted to the next level. Is that what is happening? The evolutionary trait of our genetic makeup is perhaps a deciding factor of the outcome. In this age of ubiquitous social media and the egregore it shapes up continually, our herd mentality would push us in the direction of early adapters. Till then, sticking to our value system and donning a virtuous attitude might be our safe bets.

    Liked by 1 person

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