What would happen to intimacy if an acquaintance you casually communicate with could manage to know you better than a close family member?
As my birthday rolled around this year, I was struck by the diverse levels of automation involved in the greetings received. There was the totally computerized message (with coupon!) from the auto dealer; a card with a handwritten signature from the insurance agent, or, more likely, his secretary; Facebook greetings from friends who were alerted by the social network about my birthday; an e-card with a personalized note from a brother, reminded by his calendar program; and printed cards personalized by relatives, most reminded by traditional, print calendars. From my husband, I received an iPad, with an endearingly personalized card, and from my daughter, a photograph with an original poem, based on shared memories. Neither of these last two need reminders because they have my birth date stored in their memories -- at least they'd better!
My response reflected the value ascribed to these intimations of intimacy: I trashed the auto dealer and insurance agent cards without reading them; set the personal notes on the sideboard for a week before discarding; used the iPad to respond in kind to the electronic greetings, with my husband's card stored with other memorabilia; and hung my daughter's poem-inscribed photo on my wall.
Now, what would happen if people had software at their disposal capable of knowing you well enough to be able to craft very personal messages or even a birthday poem as good as your daughter's? What if people could use a robot, more eloquent than they could ever be, to deliver birthday messages? Or maybe even marriage proposals?
Intimacy is part of the “We think, therefore I am” hard-wiring described by Philippe Rochat in Others in Mind. Rochat elucidates how we become conscious of our own existence mostly through recognition by others and how we constantly struggle to reconcile our internal view of ourselves with what we perceive others reflecting. So to the extent that a poem about us conforms with our internal view, that view is validated; we feel the satisfaction of intimacy with an author who understands us. The question is, do we feel validated if that "someone" is not a person but the result of smart algorithms interacting with our email trail and social profiles? Already there've been experiments to create AI tools that'd automatically post Twitter and Facebook updates just like you would, or that would work as your "cognitive assistants," completely taking care of organizing and prioritazing your information and communication activities.
Perhaps the real question, then, is a more complex one: As we become more dependent on computers and automation (and more addicted to social networks), are we evolving into persons joined by brain-computer interfaces? I say that metaphorically, but only for now, as advances in neural prostheses might turn that scenario into reality. And when that happens, will we become more like conjoined twins, sharing an amygdala? Would the e-cards from the insurance agent become input data in our cortices that we need to send to a mental spam folder? Or in the case of desired inputs, could AI algorithms generate messages that validate us and make us feel warm-and-fuzzy? Could Asimo deliver you a better happy birthday message than your spouse's?
Society must weigh the benefits and dangers of automated intimacy. When I began writing this post, I felt wary of that concept. But as I think it through, I'm reconsidering. In AI and neurology, when a process is critical, common, and/or instantaneous, it's usually hardwired, automated. Does it make sense, then, as we become a communal being, that the process of personal validation, of recognition of each self that will make up Ourselves (I use the Royal group noun form purposely) should be automated and hardwired? I might be ready to answer "maybe," with this caveat from neuroscientist David Eagleman's "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" bestseller: "Evolve solutions, [but] when you find a good one, don’t stop."
I look forward to hearing others' ideas and feelings about automated intimacy.
Jeanne Dietsch, an IEEE member, is CEO and co-founder of MobileRobots in Amherst, N.H., and vice president of emerging technologies at Adept Technology. Her last post was about automated airport security.