As a psychologist, Sherry Turkle is of course most interested in how people respond emotionally as they interact with robots. Fifth-grader Tia thinks about what might be possible: she believes robots might someday be advanced enough to be babysitters. In this role, they would be more “efficient and reliable” than people. It seems that Tia knows, as did so many other fifth graders whom Turkle interviewed, that people can be unreliable and unpredictable. You can’t always plan on their being there. Tia herself talks of being at home alone with her pregnant mother when her mother suddenly went into labor and the immediate issue became who was going to take care of Tia (fortunately there was a grandmother nearby). Still, Tia had been frightened by the uncertainty of the situation. A robot would always be there in case it was needed to take over the tending of children. “Having a robot babysitter would mean never having to panic about finding someone at the last minute,” Tia said.
In this sense observing the interaction between humans and robots becomes more of a Rorschach test. It can be less about what actually happens to a person emotionally when in contact with a robot and more about what surfaces about what is missing in a person’s own life. Turkle found that, like Tia, many of the fifth-graders who spent time with robots focus not about immediate reaction to the robot but to other deep-seated concerns. Turkle observes: “Children talk about working mothers, absent fathers, and isolated grandparents. There is much talk of divorce. Some children wonder whether one of this robot’s future cousins might be a reasonable babysitter; something mechanical might be more reliable than the caretaking they have.”
For the many children Turkle interviewed who spend time alone in empty homes after school, a humanoid robot is an attractive companion—far better than the television or computer they usually resort to when alone. Like so many stories of the elderly using robots for companionship, the story of Tia is a story of loneliness and fear of abandonment. But is building better machines to mask, or even to mitigate, this basic human loneliness really the solution we want to advocate?