Damn You Technology…

Quit batting your seductive visual sensors at me. You know I can’t resist. But I often wonder what I’m giving up when I give in to your temptations. That’s why I was interested in reading Tom Goodwin’s take on the major theme at SXSW – the Battle for Humanity. He broke this down into three sub themes. I agree with them. In fact, I’ve written on all of them in the past. They were:

Data Trading – We’re creating a market for data. But when you’re the one that generated that data, who should own it?

Shift to No Screens – an increasing number of connected devices will change of concept of what it means to be online.

Content Tunnel Vision – As the content we see is increasingly filtered based on our preferences, what does that do for our perception of what is real?

But while we’re talking about our imminent surrender to the machines, I feel there are some other themes that also merit some discussion. Let’s limit it to two today.

A New Definition of Connection and Community

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Robert Sapolsky

A few weeks ago I read an article that I found fascinating by neuroendocrinologist and author Robert Sapolsky. In it, he posits that understanding Capgras Syndrome is the key to understanding the Facebook society. Capgras, first identified by French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras, is a disorder where we can recognize a face of a person but we can’t retrieve feelings of familiarity. Those afflicted can identify the face of a loved one but swear that it’s actually an identical imposter. Recognition of a person and retrieval of emotions attached to that person are handled by two different parts of the brain. When the connection is broken, Capgras Syndrome is the result.

This bifurcation of how we identify people is interesting. There is the yin and yang of cognition and emotion. The fusiform gyrus cognitively “parses” the face and then the brain retrieves the emotions and memories that are associated with it. To a normally functioning brain, it seems seamless and connected, but because two different regions (or, in the case of emotion, a network of regions) are involved, they can neurologically evolve independently of each other. And in the age of Facebook, that could mean a significant shift in the way we recognize connections and create “cognitive communities.” Sapolsky elaborates:

Through history, Capgras syndrome has been a cultural mirror of a dissociative mind, where thoughts of recognition and feelings of intimacy have been sundered. It is still that mirror. Today we think that what is false and artificial in the world around us is substantive and meaningful. It’s not that loved ones and friends are mistaken for simulations, but that simulations are mistaken for them.

As I said in a column a few months back, we are substituting surface cues for familiarity. We are rushing into intimacy without all the messy, time consuming process of understanding and shared experience that generally accompanies it.

Brains do love to take short cuts. They’re not big on heavy lifting. Here’s another example of that…

Free Will is Replaced with An Algorithm

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Yuval Harari

In a conversation with historian Yuval Harari, author of the best seller Sapiens, Derek Thompson from the Atlantic explored “The Post Human World.” One of the topics they discussed was the End of Individualism.

Humans (or, at least, most humans) have believed our decisions come from a mystical soul – a transcendental something that lives above our base biology and is in control of our will. Wrapped up in this is the concept of us as an individual and our importance in the world as free thinking agents.

In the past few decades, there is a growing realization that our notion of “free will” is just the result of a cascade of biochemical processes. There is nothing magical here; there is just a chain of synaptic switches being thrown. And that being the case – if a computer can process things faster than our brains, should we simply relegate our thinking to a machine?

In many ways, this is already happening. We trust Google Maps or our GPS device more than we trust our ability to find our own way. We trust Google Search more than our own memory. We’re on the verge of trusting our wearable fitness tracking devices more than our own body’s feedback. And in all these cases, our trust in tech is justified. These things are usually right more often than we are. But when it comes to humans vs, machines, they represent a slippery slope that we’re already well down. Harari speculates what might be at the bottom:

What really happens is that the self disintegrates. It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you.

When I lay awake worrying about technology, these are the types of things that I think about. The big question is – is humanity an outmoded model? The fact is that we evolved to be successful in a certain environment. But here’s the irony in that: we were so successful that we changed that environment to one where it was the tools we’ve created, not the creators, which are the most successful adaptation. We may have made ourselves obsolete. And that’s why really smart humans, like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are so worried about artificial intelligence.

“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” said Hawking in a recent interview with BBC. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Worried about a machine taking your job? That may be the least of your worries.

 

 

The Chaos Theory of Marketing

Last week, I wrote why marketers are struggling with job security. In an effort to provide career counseling to an industry, I would offer this suggestion: start learning about the behaviors of non-linear dynamic systems. You’re going to have to get comfortable with the special conditions that accompany complexity.

Markets are always complex, but there’s a phenomenon that gives them the illusion of predictability. This phenomenon is potential. Potential, in this instance, means the gap between the current market state and a possible future state. The presence of potential creates market demand. Every time a new product is introduced, a new potential gap is created. Supply and demand are knocked out of balance. Until balance is regained, the market becomes more predictable.

Here’s an analogy that makes it a little easier to understand how this potential can impact the behaviors of a complex market. A model that’s often used to explain complexity is to imagine a pool table filled with balls. The twist is that each of these balls is self propelled and can move in any direction at random. Imagine how difficult it would be to predict where any single ball might go.

Now, imagine taking this same pool table and lifting one of the corner legs up 6 inches, introducing the force of gravity as a variable. Individual predictions are still difficult, but you’d be pretty safe in saying that the pocket that was diagonally opposite to the raised leg would eventually collect more than it’s fair share of balls. In this example, gravity plays the role of market potential. The market still behaves in a complex manner but there is a consistent force – the force of gravity – that exerts its influence on that complexity and makes it more predictable.

Marketing is built on exploiting potential – on capitalizing on (or creating) gaps between what we have and what we want. These gaps have always been around, but the nature of them has changed. While this potential was aimed further down Maslow’s hierarchy, it was pretty easy to predict purchasing behaviors. When it comes to the basics – meeting our need of food, water, shelter, safety – humans are all pretty much alike. But when it comes to purchases higher up the hierarchy – at the levels of self-esteem or self-actualization – things become tougher to predict.

Collectively, the western world has moved up Maslow’s hierarchy. A 2011 study from Heritage.org showed that even those living below the poverty line have a standard of life that exceeds those at all but the highest income levels just a few decades before. In 2005, 98.7% of homes had a TV, 84% had air conditioning, 79% has satellite or cable TV and 68% had a personal computer.

But it’s not only the diversification of consumer demand that’s increasing the complexity of markets. The more connected that markets become, the more unpredictable they become. Let’s go back to our overly simplified pool ball analogy. Let’s imagine that not only are our pool balls self-propelled, but they also tend to randomly change direction every time they collide with another ball. The more connected the market, the greater the number of collisions and subsequent direction changes. In marketing, those “collisions” could be a tweet, a review, a Facebook post, a Google search – well – you get the idea. It’s complex.

These two factors; the fragmentation of consumer demand and the complexity of a highly interconnected market, makes predicting consumer behavior a mug’s game. The challenge here is that marketing – in a laudable attempt to become more scientific – is following in science’s footsteps by taking a reductionist path. Our marketing mantra is to reduce everything down to testable variables and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I’ve said it myself on many occasions. But, as with science, we must realize that when we’re dealing with dynamic complexity, the whole can be much greater than the sum of its testable parts. There are patterns that can be perceived only at a macro scale. Here there be “black swans.” It’s the old issue of ignoring the global maxima or minima by focusing too closely on the local.

Reduction and testing tends to lead to a feeling of control and predictability. And, in some cases (such as a market that has a common potential) things seem to go pretty much according to plan. But sooner or later, complexity rears its head and those best laid plans blow up in your face.

 

 

Drowning in a Sea of Tech

The world is becoming a pretty technical place. The Internet of Things is surrounding us. Which sounds exciting. Until the Internet of Things doesn’t work.

Then what?

I know all these tech companies have scores of really smart people who work to make their own individual tech as trouble free as possible. Although the term has lost its contextual meaning, we’re all still aiming for “plug and play”. For people of a certain age – me, for example – this used to refer to a physical context; being able to plug stuff into a computer and have it simply started working. Now, we plug technology into our lives and hopes it plays well with all the other technology that it finds there.

But that isn’t always the case – is it? Sometimes, as Mediapost IoT Daily editor Chuck Martin recently related, technology refuses to play nice together. And because we now have so much technology interacting in so many hidden ways, it becomes very difficult to root out the culprit when something goes wrong.

Let me give you an example. My wife has been complaining for some time that her iPhone has been unable to take a picture because it has no storage available, even though it’s supposed to magically transport stuff off to the “Cloud”. This past weekend, I finally dug in to see what the problem was. The problem, as it turned out, was that the phone was bloated with thousands of emails and Messenger chats that were hidden and couldn’t be deleted. They were sucking up all the available storage. After more than an hour of investigation, I managed to clear up the Messenger cache but the email problem – which I’ve traced back to some issues with configuration of the account at her email provider – is still “in progress.”

We – and by “we” I include me and all you readers – are a fairly tech savvy group. With enough time and enough Google searches, we can probably hunt down and eliminate most bugs that might pop up. But that’s us. There are many more people who are like my wife. She doesn’t care about incorrectly configured email accounts or hidden caches. She just wants shit to work. She wants to be able to take a picture of my nephew on his 6th birthday. And when she can’t do that, the quality of my life takes a sudden downturn.

The more that tech becomes interconnected, the more likely it is that stuff can stop working for some arcane reason that only a network or software engineer can figure out. It’s getting to the point where all of us are going to need a full-time IT tech just to keep our households running. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t know where they’re going to sleep. Our guest room is full of broken down computers and printers right now.

For most of us, there is a triage sequence of responses to tech-related pains in the ass:

  1. First, we ignore the problem, hoping it will go away.
  2. Second, we reboot every piece of tech related to the problem, hoping it will go away.
  3. If neither of the above work, we marginalize the problem, working around it and hoping that eventually it will go away.
  4. If none of this works, we try to upgrade our way out of the problem, buying newer tech hoping that by tossing our old tech baby out the window, the problem will be flushed out along with the bath water.
  5. Finally, in rare cases (with the right people) – we actually dig into the problem, trying to resolve it

By the way, it hasn’t escaped my notice that there’s a pretty significant profit motive in point number 4 above. A conspiracy, perchance? Apple, Microsoft and Google wouldn’t do that to us, would they?

I’m all for the Internet of Things. I’m ready for self-driving cars, smart houses and bio-tech enhanced humans. But my “when you get a chance could you check…” list is getting unmanageably long. I’d be more than happy to live the rest of my life without having to “go into settings” or “check my preferences.”

Just last night I dreamt that I was trying to swim to a deserted tropical island but I kept drowning in a sea of Apple Watches. I called for help but the only person that could hear me was Siri. And she just kept saying, “I’m really sorry about this but I cannot take any requests right now. Please try again later…”

Do you think it means anything?

 

The Magic of the Internet Through My Dad’s Eyes

“Would you rather lose a limb or never be able to access the Internet?” My daughter looked at me, waiting for my answer.

“Well?”

We were playing the game “Would You Rather” during a lull in the Christmas festivities. The whole point of the game is to pose two random and usually bizarre alternatives to choose from. Once you do, you see how others have answered. It’s a hard game to take seriously.

Except for this question. This one hit me like a hammer blow.

“I have to say I’d rather lose a limb.”

Wow. I would rather lose an arm or a leg than lose something I didn’t even know existed 20 years ago. That’s a pretty sobering thought. I am so dependent on this technical artifact that I value it more than parts of my own body.

During the same holiday season, my stepdad came to visit. He has two cherished possessions that are always with him. One is a pocketknife his father gave him. The other is an iPhone 3 that my sister gave him when she upgraded. Dad doesn’t do much on his phone. But what he does do is critically important to him. He texts his kids and he checks the weather. If you grew up on a farm on the Canadian prairies during the 1930’s, you literally lived and died according to the weather. So, for Dad, it’s magic of the highest sort to be able to know what the temperature is in the places where his favorite people live. We kids have added all our home locations to his weather app, as well as that of his sister-in-law. Dad checks the weather in Edmonton (Alberta), Calgary (Alberta), Kelowna (BC), Orillia (Ontario) and his hometown of Sundre (Alberta) constantly. It’s his way of keeping tabs on us when he can’t be with us.

I wonder what Dad would say if I asked him to choose between his iPhone and his right arm. I suspect he’d have to think about it. I do know the first thing I have to do when he comes to our place is set him up on our home wifi network.

It’s easy to talk about how Millennials or Gen-X’s are dependent on technology. But for me, it really strikes home when I watch people of my parent’s generation hold on to some aspect of technology for dear life because it enables them to do something so fundamentally important to them. They understand something we don’t. They understand what Arthur C. Clarke meant when he said,

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

To understand this, look for a moment through the eyes of my Dad when he was a child. He rode a horse to school – a tiny one room building that was heated with a wood stove. Its library consisted of two bookshelves on the back wall. A circle whose radius was defined by how far you could drive the wagon in a single day bound the world of which he was aware. That world consisted of several farms, the Eagle Hill Co-op store, the tiny town of Sundre, his school and the post office. The last was particularly important, because that’s where the packages you ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue (the Canadian equivalent of Sears Roebuck) would come.

It’s to this post office that my step-dad dragged his sleigh about 75 years ago. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was picking up his Christmas present. His mother, whose own paternal grandfather was a contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin, had saved milk money for several months to purchase a three-volume encyclopaedia for the home. Nobody else they knew had an encyclopaedia. Books were rare enough. But for Isobel (Buckman) Leckie, knowledge was an investment worth making. Those three books became the gift of a much bigger world for my Dad.

It’s easy to make fun of seniors for their simultaneous amazement of and bewilderment by technology. We chuckle when Dad does his third “weather round-up” of the day. We get frustrated when he can’t seem to understand how wifi works. But let’s put this in the context of the change he has seen in his life on this earth. This is not just an obsolete iPhone 3 that he holds in his hand. This is something for which the adjective “magical” seems apt.

Perhaps it’s even magic you’d pay an arm and a leg for.

Back to the Coffee House: Has Journalism Gone Full Circle?

First, let’s consider two facts about Facebook that ran in Mediapost in the last two weeks. The first:

“A full 65% of people find their next destination through friends and family on Facebook.”

Let’s take this out of the context of just looking for your next travel destination. Let’s think about it in terms of a risky decision. Choosing somewhere to go on a vacation is a big decision. There’s a lot riding on it. Other than the expense, there’s also your personal experience. The fact that 2 out of 3 people chose Facebook as the platform upon which to make that decision is rather amazing when you think about it. It shows just how pervasive and influential Facebook as become.

Now, the next fact:

“Facebook users are two-and-a-half times more likely to read fake news fed through the social network than news from reputable news publishers.”

There’s really no reason to elaborate on the above – ‘nuff said. It’s pretty clear that Facebook has emerged at the dominant public space in our lives. It is perhaps the most important platform in our culture today for forming beliefs and opinions.

Sorry Mark Zuckerberg, but not matter what you may have said in the past about not being a media outlet, you can’t duck this responsibility. If our public opinions are formed on your private property that is a unimaginably powerful platform then – as Spidey’s Uncle Ben said (or the French National Convention of 1793; depending on whom you’re prefer to quote as a source) – “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you provide a platform and an audience to news providers – fake or real, you are, ipso facto, a media outlet.

But Facebook is more than just an outlet. It is also the forum where news is digested and shared. It is both a gristmill and a cauldron where beliefs are formed and opinions expressed. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, although the previous occurrence was in a different time and a very different place. It actually contributed directly to the birth of modern journalism – which is, ironically – under threat from this latest evolution of news.

If you were an average citizen London in 1700 your sources for news were limited. First of all, there was a very good chance that you were illiterate, so reading the news wasn’t an option. The official channel for the news of the realm was royal proclamations read out by town criers. Unfortunately, this wasn’t so much news as whatever the ruling monarch felt like proclaiming.

There was another reality of life in London – if you drank the water it could possibly kill you. You could drink beer in a pub – which most did – or if you preferred to stay sober you could drink coffee. Starting in the mid 1600’s coffee houses started to pop up all over London. It wasn’t the quality of the coffee that made these public spaces all the rage. It was the forum they provided for the sharing of news. Each new arrival was greeted with, “Your servant, sir. What news have you?” Pamphlets, journals, broadsheets and newsletters from independent (a.k.a “non-royal”) publishers were read aloud, digested and debated. Given the class-bound society of London, coffee houses were remarkably democratic. “Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,” proclaimed the Rules and Orders of the Coffee-House (1674), “but take the next fit seat he can find.” Lords, fishmongers, baronets, barristers, butchers and shoe-blacks could and did all share the same table. The coffee houses of London made a huge contribution to our current notion of media as a public trust, with all that entails.

In a 2011 article the Economist made the same parallel between coffee houses and digitally mediated news. In it, they foreshadowed a dramatic shift in our concept of news:

“The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.”

The last line was prescient. Seismic disruption has fundamentally torn the political and societal landscape asunder. But I have a different take on the “discursive ethos” of news consumption. I assume the Economist used this phrase to mean a verbal interchange of thought related to the news. But that doesn’t happen on Facebook. There is no thought and there is little discourse. The share button is hit before there is any chance to digest the news, let alone vet it for accuracy. This is a much different atmosphere of the coffee house. There is a dynamic that happens when our beliefs are called on the mat in a public forum. It is here where beliefs may be altered but they can never change in a vacuum. The coffee house provided the ideal forum for the challenging of beliefs. As mentioned, it was perhaps the most heterogeneous forum in all of England at the time. Most of all it was an atmosphere infused with physicality and human interaction – a melting pot of somatic feedback. Debate was civil but passionate. There was a dynamic totally missing from it’s online equivalent. The rules and realities of the 18th century coffee house forced thoughtfulness and diverse perspectives upon the discourse. Facebook allows you to do an end run around it as you hit your share button.

The Calcification of a Columnist

First: the Caveat. I’m old and grumpy. That is self-evident. There is no need to remind me.

But even with this truth established, the fact is that I’ve noticed a trend. Increasingly, when I come to write this column, I get depressed. The more I look for a topic to write about, the more my mood spirals downward.

I’ve been writing for Mediapost for over 12 years now. Together, between the Search Insider and Online Spin, that’s close to 600 columns. Many – if not most – of those have been focused on the intersection between technology and human behavior. I’m fascinated by what happens when evolved instincts meet technological disruption.

When I started this gig I was mostly optimistic. I was amazed by the possibilities and – somewhat naively it turns out – believed it would make us better. Unlimited access to information, the ability to connect with anyone – anywhere, new ways to reach beyond the limits of our own DNA; how could this not make humans amazing?

Why, then, do we seem to be going backwards? What I didn’t realize at the time is that technology is like a magnifying glass. Yes, it can make the good of human nature better, but it can also make the bad worse. Not only that, but Technology also has a nasty habit of throwing in unintended consequences; little gotchas we never saw coming that have massive moral implications. Disruption can be a good thing, but it can also rip things apart in a thrice that took centuries of careful and thoughtful building to put in place. Black Swans have little regard for ethics or morality.

I have always said that technology doesn’t change behaviors. It enables behaviors. When it comes to the things that matter, our innate instincts and beliefs, we are not perceptibly different than our distant ancestors were. We are driven by the same drives. Increasingly, as I look at how we use the outcomes of science and innovation to pursue these objectives, I realize that while it can enable love, courage and compassion, technology can also engender more hate, racism and misogyny. It makes us better while it also makes us worse. We are becoming caricatures of ourselves.

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Everett Rogers, 1962

Everett Rogers plotted the diffusion of technology through the masses on a bell curve and divided us up into innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. The categorization was defined by our acceptance of innovation. Inevitably, then, there would be a correlation between that acceptance and our sense of optimism about the possibilities of technology. Early adopters would naturally see how technology would enable us to be better. But, as diffusion rolls through the curve we would eventually hit those for which technology is just there – another entitlement, a factor of our environment, oxygen. There is no special magic or promise here. Technology simply is.

So, to recap, I’m old and grumpy. As I started to write yet another column I was submerged in a wave of weariness.   I have to admit – I have been emotionally beat up by the last few years. I’m tired of writing about how technology is making us stupider, lazier and less tolerant when it should be making us great.

But another thing usually comes with age: perspective. This isn’t the first time that humans and disruptive technology have crossed paths. That’s been the story of our existence. Perhaps we should zoom out a bit from our current situation. Let’s set aside for a moment our navel gazing about fake news, click bait, viral hatred, connected xenophobia and erosion of public trusts. Let’s look at the bigger picture.

History isn’t sketched in straight lines. History is plotted on a curve. Correction. History is plotted in a series of waves. We are constantly correcting course. Disruption tends to swing a pendulum one way until a gathering of opposing force swings it the other way. It takes us awhile to absorb disruption, but we do – eventually.

I suspect if I were writing this in 1785 I’d be disheartened by the industrial blight that was enveloping the world. Then, like now, technology was plotting a new course for us. But in this case, we have the advantage of hindsight to put things in perspective. Consider this one fact: between 1200 and 1600 the life span of a British noble didn’t go up by even a single year. But, between 1800 and today, life expectancy for white males in the West doubled from thirty eight years to seventy six. Technology made that possible.

stevenpinker2Technology, when viewed on a longer timeline, has also made us better. If you doubt that, read psychologist and author Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature.” His exhaustively researched and reasoned book leads you to the inescapable conclusion that we are better now than we ever have been. We are less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than at any time in history. Technology also made that possible.

It’s okay to be frustrated by the squandering of the promise of technology. But it’s not okay to just shrug and move on. You are the opposing force that can cause the pendulum to change direction. Because, in the end, it’s not technology that makes us better. It’s how we choose to use that technology.

 

 

 

You’ve got a Friend in Me – Our Changing Relationship with A.I.

Since Siri first stepped into our lives in 2011, we’re being introduced to more and more digital assistants. We’ve met Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Google Now. We know them, but do we love them?

Apparently, it’s important that we bond with said digital assistants and snappy comebacks appear to be the surest path to our hearts. So, if you ask Siri if she has a boyfriend, she might respond with, “Why? So we can get ice cream together, and listen to music, and travel across galaxies, only to have it end in slammed doors, heartbreak and loneliness? Sure, where do I sign up?” It seems to know a smart-assed digital assistant is to love her – but just be prepared for that love to be unrequited.

Not to be outdone, Google is also brushing up on its witty repartee for it’s new Digital Assistant – thanks to some recruits from the Onion and Pixar. A recent Mediapost article said that Google had just assembled a team of writers from those two sources – tapping the Onion for caustic sarcasm and Pixar for a gentler, more human touch.

But can we really be friends with a machine, even if it is funny?

Microsoft thinks so. They’ve unveiled a new chatbot in China called Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice). Xiaoice takes on the persona of a 17 year old girl that responds to questions like “How would you like others to comment on you when you die one day?” with the plaintiff “The world would not be much different without me.” Perhaps this isn’t as clever as Siri’s comebacks, but there’s an important difference: Siri’s responses were specifically scripted to respond to anticipated question; while Xiaoice actually talks with you by using true artificial intelligence and linguistic processing.

In a public test on WeChat, Xiaoice received 1.5 million chat group invitations in just 72 hours. As of earlier this year, she had had more than 10 billion conversations. In a blog post, Xiaoice’s “father”, Yongdong Wang, head of the Microsoft Application and Services Group East Asia, said, “Many see Xiaoice as a partner and friend, and are willing to confide in her just as they do with their human friends. Xiaoice is teaching us what makes a relationship feel human, and hinting at a new goal for artificial intelligence: not just analyzing databases and driving cars, but making people happier.”

When we think of digital assistants, we naturally think of the advantages that machines have over humans: unlimited memory, access to the entire web, vastly superior number crunching skills and much faster processing speeds. This has led to “cognitive offloading” – humans transferring certain mental processing tasks to machines. We now trust Google more than our own memory for retrieving information – just as we trust calculators more than our own limited mathematical abilities. But there should be some things that humans are just better at. Being human, for instance. We should be more empathetic – better able to connect with other people. A machine shouldn’t “get us” better than our spouse or best friend.

For now, that’s probably still true. But what if you don’t have a spouse, or even a best friend? Is having a virtual friend better than nothing at all? Recent studies have shown that robotic pets seem to ease loneliness with isolated seniors. More research is needed, but it’s not really surprising to learn that a warm, affectionate robot is better than nothing at all. What was surprising was that in one study, seniors preferred a robotic dog to the real thing.

The question remains, however: Can we truly have a relationship with a machine? Can we feel friendship – or even love – when we know that the machine can’t do the same? This goes beyond the high-tech flirtation of discovering Siri’s or Google’s “easter egg” responses to something more fundamental. It’s touching on what appears to be happening in China, where millions are making a chatbot their personal confident. I suspect there are more than a few lonely Chinese who would consider Xiaoice their best friend.

And – on many levels – that scares the hell out of me.