YOU and AI: We can’t be Friends!

I am both your friend and your assistant”, Siri responds when you ask her about your relationship. “I would prefer to think of myself as your friend who also happens to be artificially intelligent”, the Google assistant would tell you.

Humanoid Companion Robots can even surpass this kind of social interaction: they are embodied and we are sharing our physical worlds with them. People’s interacting experiences with humanoid robots therefore appear to be different from people’s interaction experiences with most other technologies. Studies could even proof that people who feel socially excluded can rebound from their alienation by turning to humanoid devices. Based on these results, the idea arose to consider robots as a solution to an ever expanding problem: the growing loneliness in our society.

In the UK alone the Office for National Statistic estimates that more than three million people are often or always lonely. According to a study that used a large representative German adult sample, more than 10% of all participants reported some degrees of loneliness. Social isolation has become a serious public health problem with ample research suggesting that the number of socially disconnected and lonely adults is higher than ever before. Loneliness not just increases self-destructive habits, more exposure to stress and withdraw from engaging with others, but even affects the immune and cardiovascular system and increases sleep deprivation. Scientists stated that

“Loneliness can be twice as deadly as obesity and worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Especially elderly people are affected but overall loneliness doesn’t discriminate between age, gender or borders. Eradicating this growing challenge won’t be easy for our society, but are humanoid robots a considerable solution for the problem? Could robots provide real friendship? How would the use of robots effect our human-human interactions?

As an AI Student I am aware of the possibilities and the current development status of AI companion robots. Under the assumption that robots could indeed become more human-like in their behavior and appearance, but nevertheless always remain distinguishable from humans, it is necessary to critically oppose their use to combat loneliness for several reasons: (1) First, robots could never become real human friends and thus should not be considered as a substitution for a human friend. (2) Second, by satisfying our basic need to connect with others, there is a risk that robots could instead make us even more lonely and (3) last, AI companions could even diminish our ability to connect with others, thus endanger our social interactions.

Can we be friends ?

Aristotles said there are three types of friendship, but only one we should strive for. Graphic Source

Loneliness comes with a lack of family and friends. The application of robots, should compensate for this lack of family and friendship. But can we even be friends with a robot? What kind of friendship would that be? –The discussion of friendship is more than 2000 years old. Aristotle defined three categories of friendship, that of utility, pleasure and good or virtue, providing a good scale for an investigation. According to Aristotle, the perfect and only true friendship is the one of virtue, in which friends love each other for their own sake, and they wish good things for each other. This kind of friendship is only possible between “good people similar in virtue” since only virtuous people are capable of loving another person unconditionally. It is that kind of friendship where you are comfortable in being honest and open to someone, you can criticize without causing offense and you both think of each other as equals. In contrast, friendships of pleasure and utility, where two persons like each other because they find each other pleasant or useful, are imperfect and fragile. Friends of utility e.g. happened to be in the same class and have instrumental benefits from each other. Friends of pleasure are friends that come together to further their enjoyment of pursuits, like hobbies. These relationships are fragile as the incentive for keeping up the relationship cease when these positive feelings diminish.

Assuming that AI technologies will become highly advanced in the future, it is easy to imagine how you might want to use your utility friendship with Robo X-2PO to climb the social ladder and get invited to the most notorious parties. You might also enjoy playing soccer with Robot Ronaldo 4000 because it provides a good challenge at your level ability. However, the third kind of friendship and according to Aristotle the only true kind of friendship, is hard to replicate with a humanoid robot, that is just a machine simulating to share your values and opinions. No matter how good technology gets, it is intrinsically not possible to have friendships of good with a robot. Thus, we can assume that then as now, nobody would like to live without real human friends.

This can be illustrated with a game of thought that was introduced by Alexis Elder, an American Philosopher: imagine that you are given a choice between two possible lives. At the time of choice, you know how the lives will differ. But once you have made your choice and you begin your chosen life, you will forget ever having been given the choice. Option one is that the people you consider your best friends are actually paid actors; they would behave as perfect friends, always treat you nice, never take advantage of you, but at the same time they don’t care for you and find no pleasure in interacting with you. The second option is that your closest friends are exactly as they appear to you. How would you decide? –Well, according to Elder most people would go for the second option. We can therefore conclude, that we value the virtue more than the pure appearance of friendship. Further, we can assume that we prefer the second option for non-instrumental reasons. Overall, this experiment illustrates that the most choice worthy lives include friendships of good, which involve the reciprocal caring of genuine agents capable of care and it underlines that the illusion of a robot-friendship with unidirectional emotional bonds cannot substitute a human friend.

Any companion is better than no companion ?!

Even though we can never become real friends with robots, one could argue that any companion may still appear better than no companion. And indeed, the researchers Mourey, Olson and Yoon could show that people who experienced social loneliness felt better after engaging with products they perceived as having humanlike qualities. These people were less likely to compensate for feeling socially excluded than people who interacted with more neutral technologies. Furthermore, their anticipated need to engage with close others in the future and the willingness to engage in prosocial behavior were decreased. Thus, the results suggest that personified objects can provide real consolation. But are these results as positive and promising as they appear at first sight? What would this imply for our society? All those lonely people could simply be given a humanoid robot and they would no longer feel alone? This conclusion is too short-sighted, as the inflationary use of fake companions comes with a cost.

Imagine a scenario where the need to engage with others and the willingness to engage in prosocial behavior becomes less and less in our society… we would start a process of dehumanization and the technology would discourage us from pro-social human contact. Instead, we would be surrounded by the illusion of a robot-friendship with unidirectional emotional bonds that might satisfy short sighted needs of social interaction and could even decrease our perceived loneliness over a limited period of time, our actual loneliness would however increase and in the long run we would feel even more lonely than without the robot companion. This is even riskier for companions of romantic variety, which can already be seen on the horizon. A different scenario, especially relevant for elderly people, would be that the application of multiple technological systems providing social interactions, could discourage family members, caregiver or friends to visit that person, as they might feel that the person is well taken care of by the robot. This is troublesome as many elderlies already feel socially isolated and might get even more excluded from our society. 

Losing our ability to connect ?

The way we treat and interact with robots is likely to influence or change the way we are treating other humans. Graphic Source

As humans tend to act upon or talk to humanoid robots as if these machines have sensations and emotions, even though existing robots are not sentient and lack feelings, they seem to perceive the robot interaction as if one is interacting with an animal or another person and not with a technological artefact. Thus, the way we treat and interact with robots is likely to influence or change the way we are treating other humans. Indeed, scientists showed that the interaction with robots can have both, positive and negative effects on the social interaction between humans. In an experiment, small groups of people were directed to work with a humanoid robot to lay railroad tracks in a virtual world. Each group consisted of three people and a little robot, sitting around a square table, working on tablets. The robot made occasional errors and informed its team players: “Sorry guys, I made the mistake this round.” Compared with the control groups it turned out that the clumsy robot helped the groups to perform better by improving communication and collaboration among the humans. Further, these group members were more relaxed, conversational and laughed more often.

In contrast to these positive effects, other studies found that the AI technologies could influence us also in a negative way. Several researchers warn that the effects of the digital age we are living in are already reflected in our declining social abilities. There is evidence that people with higher rates of internet use indicate to have significantly worse relationships and that the use of social media and smartphones makes us narcissistic, selfish, deceitful, dishonest and compulsive. With regard to AI techniques and humanoid robots, some researchers stated their fear that frequent and close interactions with robots could damage our emotional and social development and may even lead to attachment problems. Evidence for these assumptions can already be found in our daily lives: children verbally abuse language assistants in an inappropriate tone and their parents fear that this behavior will cause them to adopt the same behavior towards real humans, simply because they get used to it. Furthermore, there is a concern that the relationship of children to AI machines could negatively influence their relationships to real people; after buying a robot for his son, MIT expert on technology and society, Sherry Turkle, warns that

“Children who grow up relating to AI in lieu of people might not acquire the equipment for empathic connections.”

Another alarming observation is that we tend to talk to our devices about things that we would not entrust to anyone else. Isn’t that absurd? What does that mean for our human marriages and friendships? Moreover, the software of our techniques is designed in a way that makes us feel better, which could discourage us from being self-reflective, critical or facing the unambiguous truth.

Companion robots that should keep their users’ company to make them feel less alone are logically applied in a private user-robot setting. The promotion of social interactions with other people is therefore not encouraged, thus the positive effects described above are unlikely to occur. At the same time the risk of negative effects remains, leading to the conclusion that the acceptance of unidirectional emotional bounds with humanoid robots could degrade our relationships with others.

What does that mean for us ?

Overall the concept of technology is largely defined by the way people and societies in which they live in, perceive, respond and interact to these technologies. Consequently, technologies also have a moral relevance given their role in mediating people’s beliefs and practices. The common opinion is that robots will become ubiquitous in our societies and that many people will be using a social robot in their homes within the not so distant future. And indeed, robots promise to add value on multiple aspects of our lives. In general, probably most of us would moreover agree on the argument, that any application should be allowed when it seems that it would be helpful and not damaging to humans. Thus, we should further not look for a uniform principle of guidance as most real life contexts involve tradeoffs between competing goods (e.g. physical health and autonomy). We should however be extremely careful in replacing human interaction with humanoid robots in social contexts. To treat the increasing loneliness, innovation will be key to address the issue, but providing lonely people humanoid robots as a substitution of a human friend is not a solution; Aristotle correctly assumed that

“The good life requires having friends of the very best kind.”

However, robots are not able to be friends of that kind. By satisfying our basic need to connect with others, these AI applications further come with the risk to make us even more lonely and in addition, lower our ability to connect with other humans. Instead of replacing human relationships, AI technologies should thus be used in a way that supplements relationships with helpful interactions. The technological progress also comes with the chance to release people working in production and distribution areas which creates more capacity for social professions that promote the exchange and cohesion of our society. It is further important to recognize that the social arrangements we take for granted today are at stake: the roles people play in their own and others’ lives are increasingly mediated by technology. If we want to live in a society that values genuine relationships and interactions with significant others, it is within the responsibility of all of us to continue to protect and emphasize the value of those relationships!

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