A.I. Might Be Man's New Best Friend

Author Elliott Holt asks: In the age of technology, can artificial intelligence cure human loneliness?

Author Elliott Holt asks: In the age of technology, can artificial intelligence cure human loneliness?

I spend a lot of time on airplanes, so I’ve been seated next to all kinds of people all over the world. But now an odd question haunts me: Were they all, in fact, people?

In January, Thai Smile Airways made headlines when it announced that passengers would be allowed to purchase seats for their dolls. The Luk Thep, as they’re known in Thailand, or “child angels,” are lifelike—and exceedingly creepy—simulacra that many people believe are animated with human souls. (Buddhist monks bless the dolls, thus inviting human spirits to inhabit them.) People there are so devoted to these dolls that they are willing to buy a second airline seat for them. One can’t blame an airline for trying to capitalize on the trend. Thai Smile treats these dolls like children: They are served snacks, and their seatbelts must be buckled during take off and landing.

Perhaps the craze for these dolls represents nostalgia for childhood innocence. And perhaps they function as child substitutes. The BBC website quotes anthropologist Asama Mungkornchai, from Prince of Songkla University, who notes that the dolls “appear to be particularly popular with middle class women.” I’ve never been to Thailand, so I’m not qualified to comment on the role of Luk Thep in Thai society, and yet I’ve been thinking about these strange supernatural dolls a lot. And I can’t help but think that these dolls are also a response to the loneliness that seems systemic in global digital culture.

In her 2012 TED talk, “Connected, But Alone,” Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, argues that the more digitally connected we are, the more lonely our society becomes. Because we’re so “connected” at all times, we no longer know how to be alone. Turkle says we’re designing technology to compensate.

Such technological illusions of companionship come in the form of social networks and so-called “sociable robots.” As Turkle says in her talk, “Many people share with me this wish: that someday, a more advanced version of Siri will be like a best friend, someone who will listen when others won’t.” It seems to me that we’re trying to design our way out of loneliness.

It might seem absurd to buy an airline seat for a doll, and yet is it any more absurd than sleeping with your iPhone next to you? According to a 2015 study by Deloitte, the average American checks their phone 46 times a day. (For 18 to 24-year-olds, the average jumps to 76 times.) I’m guilty of it, too. As a single, childless woman, who now lives in Paris, thousands of miles away from my family and most of my friends, I have become overly dependent on virtual companionship. I’m too far away to meet my friend in San Francisco for dinner, but I can see pictures of her meals on Instagram. And sometimes that seems better than nothing. Even a curated glimpse of my friends’ lives is better than no view at all. But the “connections” I have on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter are poor substitutes for real company.

Our smartphones have become our companions; when forced to put them in airplane mode, we can feel cut off, not just from our information and social networks, but from a sense of well being. Many of us are so reliant on our phones—for directions, for information, for connection—that the devices are security blankets. No, we don’t take our devices to Buddhist monks, but the Genius Bar has similar powers of animation. We’ll keep trying to escape our existential loneliness through technology. And until dolls have something interesting to say, I’ll continue flying solo.

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