Kate Darling: You know, increas­ing­ly we’re using auto­mat­ed tech­nol­o­gy in ways that kind of sup­port humans in what they’re doing rather than just hav­ing algo­rithms work on their own, because they’re not smart enough to do that yet or deal with unex­pect­ed sit­u­a­tions. So we’re inter­act­ing more and more with these sys­tems, and so you need an inter­face that it makes sense for a human to inter­act with. And so a lot of these sys­tems have an inter­face that is per­son­i­fied and that will talk to you. 

The effect that I’m so inter­est­ed in, the psy­cho­log­i­cal effect of us treat­ing these sys­tems like social actors, is actually…we achieved that in the 60s. Like in the 60s we had this chat­bot called ELIZA that Joseph Weizenbaum made. It’s a real­ly famous exam­ple of a real­ly sim­ple chat­bot. All it did was answer every­thing with a ques­tion, like a psy­cho­an­a­lyst would. So if you were like, Oh, I don’t like my mom,” it would be like, Why don’t you like your mom?” And peo­ple would just open up and tell it all sorts of things even though it was very prim­i­tive in how it behaved.

So it’s use­ful that we will engage with these sys­tems on a social lev­el, because it’s engag­ing for peo­ple and you can get peo­ple to actu­al­ly use the sys­tems more. But I do won­der whether there’s any effect on our behav­ior, on our long-term behav­ioral development. 

It real­ly gets inter­est­ing when we start talk­ing about kids. You have these sys­tems like Siri and Alexa that kids are inter­act­ing with. And if these sys­tems are sim­u­lat­ing life­like behav­ior or a real con­ver­sa­tion, then that could actu­al­ly influ­ence kids’ behav­ioral devel­op­ment and the way that they start to con­verse with oth­er peo­ple. There are some exam­ples of this, just anec­do­tal­ly, that we have so far. Like there was an arti­cle in the New York Times a few years ago about this kid, this autis­tic boy, who devel­oped a rela­tion­ship with Siri. And the mom was like this is the best thing ever. Like, Siri is infi­nite­ly patient, will answer all of his ques­tions. Also the voice recog­ni­tion is so shit­ty that he’s had to learn to artic­u­late his words real­ly well, and it’s made him a bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tor with oth­er peo­ple because of Siri.

But, then on the oth­er hand you have sto­ries like this one guy wrote an arti­cle a few months ago about how Alexa was turn­ing his kids into ass­holes because she does­n’t require any please or thank you or any of the stan­dard polite­ness that you want your kids to learn in con­vers­ing with oth­ers. So you know, I think think it is an inter­est­ing ques­tion. The more we’re able to sim­u­late a real con­ver­sa­tion with these sys­tems, the more that might get mud­dled in our sub­con­scious in some way.

One of the things that I think is real­ly nec­es­sary is that we need to study more what impact this can have on our behav­ior. So we def­i­nite­ly need to be study­ing these inter­ac­tions and study­ing the effects of these inter­ac­tions. It’s a sim­i­lar ques­tion to vio­lent video games or pornography—these are ques­tions that have come up again and again, but I think that these sys­tems bring them to a new, more vis­cer­al lev­el in our psy­chol­o­gy. So we need more research, and then depend­ing on what the answer to that spe­cif­ic ques­tion is, we might need to think about design, and use, and maybe even pol­i­cy for reg­u­lat­ing these agents.

Part of the prob­lem is also that this is such an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary prob­lem, or all of the ques­tions that are com­ing up are so inter­dis­ci­pli­nary. You need tech­nol­o­gists; you need pol­i­cy­mak­ers; you need users; you need researchers who under­stand psy­chol­o­gy, who under­stand tech­nol­o­gy, who under­stand soci­ol­o­gy. All of this is com­ing togeth­er and you need peo­ple talk­ing to each other. 

I would real­ly like us to in the next few years lean into the pos­i­tive effects of the tech­nol­o­gy and devel­op struc­tures the way that we have in oth­er fields like med­i­cine to ensure that we’re using the tech­nol­o­gy in a respon­si­ble, eth­i­cal way.