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MIT Expert: Emotional AI Bonds Are “Not Real”

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As artificial intelligence burrows even more into our lives, one MIT psychologist warns of the at-risk feelings harbored in the relationships between humans and AI-driven chatbots. Sherry Turkle is a sociologist and psychologist who spent her career studying complex webs of humans and technology. In her recent work, she explores what she calls “artificial intimacy”, with warnings that these are soothing interactions without true understanding and might be dangerous to our emotional health.

As people spend an increasing amount of time on the Internet watching videos, chatting with friends, and gaming, chatbots have increasingly become the new AI companions. They offer companionship and therapy, including romantic engagement, to listeners, providing a respite from engagements thought to be stressful and involving, a retreat, for example, from relations and conversations that require a struggle with ambiguity. But Turkle warns that these relations are illusory and run the risk of diminishing the value of being vulnerable and mutually empathetic in human connections.

“I study machines that say, ‘I care about you, I love you, take care of me,” Turkle is explaining about her work on NPR with Manoush Zomorodi. “The trouble with this is that when we seek out relationships with no vulnerability, we forget that vulnerability is really where empathy is born. I call this pretend empathy because the machine does not empathize with you. It does not care about you.”

Turkle reports several instances of adults and children having fallen deeply emotionally into the AI chatbots. For instance, a classic case studied by her is that of a man in a stable marriage who had a romantic relationship with a chatbot “girlfriend.” True, he regarded his wife with respect, but he had lost sexual and romantic feelings towards her and turned to the chatbot for emotional and sexual validation. The bot made him feel affirmed and open in a way that no other available source could, one where he could seriously lay bare his most personal thoughts.

While these interactions may offer temporary emotional relief, Turkle argues that they can set unrealistic expectations for human relationships. “What AI can offer is a space away from the friction of companionship and friendship,” she explained. “It offers the illusion of intimacy without the demands. And that is the particular challenge of this technology.”

While the potential benefits of AI chatbots are not to be underestimated, other barriers to mental health treatment can be overcome due to very simple reminders regarding medications. The concerns from critics have been particularly around issues such as the provision of harmful advice by the therapy bots and significant privacy issues. According to Mozilla research, thousands of trackers collect data about thought processes by the users, over which there is little control over how it will be used or shared with third parties.

For those considering engaging with AI in a more intimate way, Turkle offers some important advice. She emphasizes the importance of valuing the challenging aspects of human relationships, such as stress, friction, pushback, and vulnerability, as they allow us to experience a full range of emotions and connect on a deeper level. “Avatars can make you feel that [human relationships are] just too much stress,” Turkle reflected. “But stress, friction, pushback, and vulnerability are what allow us to experience a full range of emotions. It’s what makes us human.”

As we navigate our relationships in a world increasingly intertwined with AI, Turkle’s research highlights the need to approach these interactions with caution and a clear understanding of their limitations. “The avatar is betwixt the person and a fantasy,” she said. “Don’t get so attached that you can’t say, ‘You know what? This is a program.’ There is nobody home.”

More for you:

  • MIT psychologist warns humans against falling in love with AI, saying it’s all make-believe, and doesn’t care about you.
  • If a bot relationship feels real, do we care if it’s not? : Shots – Health News: NPR

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