Looking for meaningful connections
written by Mark Bunnell
Loneliness is killing us.
Seriously. It is.
In a recent study on loneliness in older persons it was reported that 43% of elders (persons over the age of 60) reported feeling lonely. In addition, feelings of loneliness were reported to be a predictor of functional decline and death. This research article defined loneliness as “the subjective feelings of isolation, not belonging, or lacking companionship. … Loneliness can be explained as the discrepancy between one’s desired relationships and one’s actual relationships.” This feeling is not exclusive to the elderly. A recent study by Cigna reported that “nearly half of Americans” report feelings of loneliness and that “Generation Z (adults 18-22) is the loneliest generation”. This trend is worrisome, especially in light of research reporting that loneliness is a predictor of functional decline and death.
Loneliness is a health risk and plagues nearly half of our country, so finding a solution is necessary. It seems obvious that the solution would be found in connecting people with people, but instead we’re using robots.
The other day I read an article about a robotic seal named Paro that serves as a therapeutic tool in nursing homes. Paro interacts with residents and helps to “reduce stress, stimulate interaction, and improve socialization”. This cute baby robot “intelligently responds to touch, sound, light, temperature, and posture”, “maintains eye contact”, and can remember “faces and previous action, allowing it to develop its own character over time according to its users’ preferences”. Sounds adorable right?
Using robots in nursing homes seems to be a widespread solution for elderly loneliness. In China, residents perceived functional robots tasked with taking vitals as companions and even “regarded the robots as replacing their children and grandchildren, who rarely visited”. It seems that robots are now fulfilling the social responsibilities of family members and close friends.
Loneliness is the feeling that results from a lack of meaningful connections, and I think that meaningful connections can only be built through relationships with other people. Attempting to use robots to “cure” the loneliness epidemic will not only not work, but in fact might actually be more destructive than we can imagine.
First let’s talk about meaningful connections. What constitutes a meaningful connection? Well what is a connection? A connection (in the most inclusive and vague sense of the word) involves two objects that are somehow linked, interlocked, or dependent on each other. Some part of each object has to be utilized by the other to make a connection. Two objects can be touching, but that doesn’t mean there is necessarily a connection. Let’s say you want to connect two legos together. There’s a difference between one sitting on top of the other and the two being connected. The round protrusions on top are “given” by one lego piece and the round cavities beneath the other piece are also “given”. You need both the protrusions and the cavities for the pieces to form a connection. In other words, a connection requires a piece or extension from both objects or parties to be given.
In terms of relationships, these connections can be emotional and physical (these aren’t really separable concepts but sometimes we like to think that they are). Imagine you are holding hands with a loved one. There’s a physical connection in which both parties are required to “give” something of themselves. In this case it is their hands. There’s also an emotional “giving” so to speak. Each party is offering and accepting some emotional gift (friendship, comfort, encouragement, romance, etc). Connections can also be made without physical contact. Imagine you are on the phone with a trusted friend and you confide in them about something you were thinking or feeling that day. Another connection has been built. You extended something of yourself (your secret thoughts or feelings) and they also received it by listening and accepting what you had to say. There’s a connection being made.
But is it enough to just connect? No. We know that not all connections are equal. It needs to be a meaningful connection.
A meaningful connection is a connection that has a purpose and can withstand some amount of stress. A meaningful connection isn’t flimsy or easily broken. Imagine you have a small magnet. It might be able to hold a paper on your fridge, but otherwise it doesn’t have much purpose and can’t withstand much stress (gravity and physics in this case). The same is true for our relationships. Often times we are “connected” with other people, but the connection is weak. We are “connected” in our love of the same food, or of art, or just in our proximity to each other as co-workers, but these connections are flimsy and lack purpose. They aren’t actually meaningful.
Meaningful connections require something important from each person. For example, two people liking the same band is a legitimate connection. They both gave something of themselves to each other (their appreciation of the same band). But in most cases, this isn’t something really important, so it isn’t a meaningful connection. It can’t sustain any stress and doesn’t have much purpose.
I think that most meaningful connections are made during a challenging or conflicting situation. A challenge or conflict will inevitably occur at some point in a relationship with another person because they have their own will. They have their own set of preferences, desires, and tastes. The challenge is the strain that requires us to extend even more of ourselves and establish an even stronger connection. In cases where someone has similar tastes as you, the connection can be made, but it isn’t very strong or meaningful. It’s really just a reflection of your own tastes, so it’s more connecting to yourself than connecting to them. You don’t have to give too much to connect to them in that way since it’s already a part of yourself.
So, if we can’t establish meaningful connections with something that doesn’t have its own will, then why do we look for companionship in robots and technology instead of other humans?
Because It’s easy. Building meaningful connections is hard; it requires conflict. Robots will agree with us and we don’t have to put in as much (or any) effort. We try to fulfill our longing for a few meaningful connections with a multitude of superficial connections. Interactive robots will like and will do what you like and do. Remember Paro, the robotic seal? It can remember users faces and associate their faces with behavior preferences. It does what the user likes. It just agrees with them. These interactive robots are just hollow reflections of our wills. And we can’t connect to that. You can’t extend a piece of yourself and connect with yourself. There’s also an element of self glorification and worship here. Even though we can’t connect to ourselves, if we’re honest, we want to. We like our preferences and desires more than anyone else’s. We would love it if everyone agreed with us, liked what we liked, and did what we did. Robots tap into this desire and we try to find our fulfillment in them.
But we’re still unfulfilled. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with Siri or Alexa? It gets pretty boing after a while because no connections are being made. We want the easier and controllable option that always agrees with us, but we also still want the meaningful connections that a robot fails to make with us, so we’re still searching for the perfect combination.
This idea has been romanticized in popular culture. In the movies Her and Blade Runner 2049, the protagonists are in meaningful relationships with some form of robotic technology. In these relationships, humans are able to build meaningful connections with the devices but still have some amount of control over the overall situation. It’s the perfect blend of convenience, meaningful connection, and control. The robots/devices/creations have their own will (their own thoughts, tastes, desires, preferences), but we can just turn them off or disconnect them if we don’t like or agree with them and don’t want to hear it.
But still, even in these movies, there is something missing. There’s no physical contact to connect through. It’s a relationship with a voice or a hologram. We long for the physical dimension of connections. In “Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War”, there’s a character named Vision who is an artificial intelligence “being” with a physical body that interacts with others and has a romantic relationship with one of the other avengers.
In the movie, Vision is a good guy and it doesn’t cause any problems. But in our universe (reality), if we were successful in creating a “Vision”, it would be terrifying (ever seen The Terminator or heard of Skynet?). It doesn’t just blur the definition of what it is to be human or to live, it erases it.
But the creation would not be human, so why would this blur that line? Why wouldn’t it be human? Because it’s made of metal and batteries? Well isn’t metal just a piece of the earth? And in what way are we not made in parts from the earth (atoms, amino acids, cells, etc)? Or what about people with metal pins to hold their bones together, pacemakers, or hearing implants? Are those not people anymore?
Because somebody put it together in a factory? Well now with in vitro fertilization, aren’t some of us assembled by technicians and still considered to be humans?
This idea is terrifying precisely because it erases the definition of what it is to be alive and what it is to be human (on a deeper level, not on a species, observational level). And it is not worth finding out what would happen.
It’s also saddening because it seems that we might rather erase humanity in hopes of glorifying ourselves and finding a way to make ultimate meaningful connections with ourselves. “We are all dying of loneliness” (Albert Schweitzer) and yet in hopes of surviving, we are on track to completely erase ourselves (figuratively or literally by creating a robot army that turns against us).
So what can you do?
If you are currently funding artificial intelligence research or are developing the technology, please stop. Tell them you read a blog that seemed legitimate and you’re a changed person now.
If you are not funding AI research or working on it, start building relationships with real humans, in real life - yes face to face in person interactions - that build deep, meaningful connections. Embrace conflict or a challenge as an opportunity to make a real connection. I’m not saying stir up conflict. But when the relationship inevitably gets difficult, don’t leave; step into it a bit more. Don’t just give into their will. Push back a bit, make a compromise, come to a solution. Make some deep meaningful connections with those around you so that you lessen the lack of connections and the need that’s driving our culture to look for an easy solution.