A few weeks ago I got an email from a reader. She had a few thoughts about my article on Moxie, the worlds first mental health robot. She brought up some very interesting points that I'd been meaning to speak to, so I've decided to post our conversation here.
The big idea? When it comes to the future I'm generally optimistic, except when it comes to AI and human relationships.
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Q: Won't we turn away from A.I. and towards real relationships?
I really appreciate your articles - they are very thought provoking and interesting. One thing Harlow's study didn't compare was if the monkey has three options- a real similar being to cuddle/nourish, cuddle proxy or nourish proxy- which will the primate choose?
Likely the real being. I saw the advertising for Moxie awhile ago as my husband who is a techy showed this to me and it made me so mad. I was like parenting has been outsourced on so many levels in this country that the ONLY thing parents have left is being there for their children when they are upset- and they can't even do that- instead they put them in a room with a robot. JESUS. I am hoping we continue to turn towards humans first instead of a robot- which I think we will, but damn our culture is obsessed with stopping the human to human connection at every possible turn. Thanks for letting me vent :)
A: Why we won't turn towards relationships, but will prefer A.I.
Thanks for the email! Always a delight to hear from readers.
I have a few thoughts—actually, a lot of thoughts. But first, what do you mean by "a real similar being to cuddle/nourish," like an "adoptive" mother? Maybe another macaque monkey?
If this is what you mean, I think he did try this. I'd have to double-check, though. There's an excellent book on Harlow's research called Love at Goon Park. Part biography, part overview of the research, it reads like a novel. I really enjoyed it.
I wish I had your hope for us turning away from machines and more towards people.
I'm not so hopeful.
I think you're hitting on an overlooked aspect of Harlow's experiments. These monkeys weren't in a great environment. They were in environments of trauma and deprivation. Take monkeys, put them in a cage, scare them, and of course, they'll go to the most emotionally comforting figure, even if it's a cloth mother. But if another real being is available, they'd go to her over a cloth mother.
I think humans are less likely to take this route.
First, human relationships are tricky. Many of us have been hurt because of our relationships and by the people closest to us. I work with plenty of people, fairly high functioning, who don't want to rely on others. They don't want intimate relationships. It's risky and hard to tell your partner/family member/friend how you were hurt. This means some clients fight against what they need, like a kid refusing to eat their peas but gulping down a Hershey's bar.
Worse, when I read history, it's obvious that a LOT of families were very messed up. I think a large part of why families were so "strong" in the past is simply because people couldn't survive without them. Family members supported each other not because they were healthy, but because everyone knew that at some point in the future they would need help from their family.
I think this means as humanity becomes more prosperous and doesn't require a family for survival, we have less incentive to invest in family.
Second, there's a concept called "supernormal stimuli" which I think is very important.
A supernormal stimuli is a stimuli human's can't resist because we never evolved a mechanism to say "no."
For instance, a normal sweet stimuli, like an orange, was scarce in nature, so we never evolved a mechanism to stop eating because there is a natural limit. You might eat four or five oranges, and then the oranges would be all gone until next season. However, a supernormal sweet, like a Hershey's bar, is a supernormal version of an orange. It's way sweeter than an orange would ever be in nature, and since our brains like sweet things, supernormal stimuli are hard to resist. Which is a big problem because they are in infinite supply.
There are tons of these sorts of stimuli. Worse, as we've advanced we've created more and more of these stimuli. For example, one of the cues which makes children cute are round faces and big eyes. Disney picked up on this, and that's why Disney princesses all have these super adorable huge eyes. It's an implicit cue to trick our brain into liking them more.
I think robots like Moxie will become a version of supernormal stimuli but for relationships. Moxie and the A.I. which come after it will have round faces and big eyes and be made of the softest, most cuddly fabric.
I think people will flock to these A.I. relationships because we don't always want relationships with other people, and because these A.I. will appear more warm, empathic, and real than real people.
Even those of us with normal/good enough parenting won't be able to resist.
Sorry to be a downer. This is one part of the future I'm not optimistic about.
Jordan (the Counselor)
Ps. If you want to learn more about supernormal stimuli check out this video. It's by the woman who literarily wrote the book on supernormal stimuli:
If you liked this post, consider reading this next. I think you'll like it ;) It's another Q&A from a reader.
Jordan Harris, Ph.D., LMFT-S, LPC-S is the lead author of the book Deliberate Practice in Multicultural Therapy. Dr. Harris is also co-developer of the Numerapy Model, a coaching program teaching therapists how to leave community based work and start their own solo counseling practices. Dr. Harris runs a solo counseling practice (Harris Couples Counseling, Marriage Therapy, & Private Practice Coaching) in Northwest Arkansas where he specializes in working with couples.