Medium Prompt: Emerging Media

How, if at all, will emerging media (e.g., AI, robots,automation) impact communication and everyday life?

Her: A look into the future or a look into the present?

Screenshot from Her

People often refer to artificial intelligence, talking robots, and full automation to be futuristic — far off in the future or in science fiction movies. What I love about the movie Her is its focus on relationships and technology in an environment that is familiar. The ways operating systems are presented are not these scary awkward alien beings. They are human-like, but with their own culture. Her raises a lot of interesting questions about how artificial intelligence has entered and will enter our everyday lives — and the possible dark and positive elements that come with it.

What types of individuals would have an interpersonal relationship with an operating system? A common line of thinking is that individuals with low social skills or an inability to have “real” interpersonal relationships would greatly benefit from AI relationships. A Wall Street Journal interview with sex psychologist Dr. Laura Berman, discussed the positive aspects of having sex robots, which are robots that can engage in sexual relations. Dr. Berman stated that sex robots are great for individuals who have difficulty engaging in interpersonal relationships. That is the beauty of technology! Introverts and individuals who can’t have “real” relationships can now have one.

I have many problems with this line of thinking. This implies that AI relationships are only for particular types of individuals.

On one hand, it might seem liberating for these groups of people, yet there is also a sense of discrimination and grouping that I don’t think we can yet claim. As IoT becomes commonplace in many American households, everyone will have AI relationships. Now, will these be interpersonal relations? How close will we feel to these systems? And is it because we don’t know how to have “real” communication? I argue that many individuals in human-to-human relationships don’t have quality relationships. In Her, the main character’s job is to write greeting cards on behalf of actual individuals — what does this say about their relationships?

Screenshot from Her
Theodore: I wish you were in this room with me right now. I wish I could put my arms around you. I wish I could touch you.
Samantha: How would you touch me?

There is also a fear that AI relationships will replace human relationships. I see AI relationships as a different kind of relationship — not one that can be simply compared and contrasted with human relationships. As an interpersonal communication scholar, I see a lot of potential for new and exciting relationships with AI, but at the same time not devaluing or forgetting our human relationships (which I highly value).

Although many interpretations of Her’s conclusion compete with each other, one of the main takeaways is how we can have interpersonal connections with an artificial being, yet we need to make sure we don’t evaluate these beings as humans because they simply are not humans. We need to evaluate and approach AI in different ways — ways that we don’t yet know.

Responses to this prompt are from students at University of San Francisco in my Communication in the Digital Age course. I encourage you to read some of them and join in on the conversation.
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