More recently, a new study just found that patients are much more willing to open up to a robot shrink than a human shrink. Here’s how Neuroscience News explained it: ”The mere belief that participants were interacting with only a computer made them more open and honest, researchers found, even when the virtual human asked personal questions such as, ‘What’s something you feel guilty about?’ or ‘Tell me about an event, or something that you wish you could erase from your memory.’ In addition, video analysis of the study subjects’ facial expressions showed that they were also more likely to show more intense signs of sadness — perhaps the most vulnerable of expressions — when they thought only pixels were present.
The reason for this success is pretty straightforward. Robots don’t judge. Humans do.
But this development also tells us a few things about our near future. First, while most people are now aware of the fact that robots are going to steal a ton of jobs in the next 20 years, the jobs that most people think are vulnerable are of the blue-collar variety. Ellie is one reason to disavow yourself of this notion.
As a result of this coming replacement, two major issues are soon to arise. The first is economic. There are about 607,000 social workers in America, 93,000 practicing psychologists, and roughly 50,000 psychiatrists. But, well, with Ellie 2.0 in the pipeline, not for long. (It’s also worth noting that these professions generate about $3.5 billion dollars in annual income, which—assuming robo-therapy is much, much cheaper than human-therapy—will also vanish from the economy.)
But the second issue is philosophical, and this is where the uncanniest valley comes back into the picture. Now, for sure, this particular valley is still hypothetical, and thus based on a few assumptions. So let’s drill down a bit.
The first assumption is that social workers, psychologist and psychiatrists are a deep knowledge base, arguably one of our greatest repositories of “about human” information.
Second, we can also assume that Ellie is going to get better and better and better over time—no great stretch since we know all the technologies that combine to make robo-psychologists possible are, as was well-documented in Abundance, accelerating on exponential growth curves. This means that sooner or later, in the psychological version of the Tricorder, we’re going to have an AI that knows us as well as we know ourselves.
Third—and also as a result of this technological acceleration—we can also assume there will soon come a time when an AI can train up a robo-therapist better than a human can—again, no great stretch because all we’re really talking about is access to a huge database of psychological data combined with ultra-accurate pattern recognition, two already possible developments.
But here’s the thing—when you add this up, what you start to realize is that sooner or later robots will know us better than we know ourselves. In Nagel’s terms, we will no longer be the species that understands our species the best. This is the Uncanniest Valley.
And just as the uncanny valley produces disgust, I’m betting that the uncanniest valley produces a nearly unstoppable fear reaction—a brand new kind of mortal terror, the downstream result of what happens when self loses its evolutionarily unparalleled understanding of self.
Perhaps this will be temporary. It’s not hard to imagine that our journey to this valley will be fortuitous. For certain, the better we know ourselves—and it doesn’t really matter where that knowledge comes from—the better we can care for and optimize ourselves.
Yet I think the fear-response produced by this uncanniest valley will have a similar effect to disgust in relationships—that is, this fear will be extremely hard to shake.
But even if I’m wrong, one this for certain, we’re heading to an inflection point almost with an equal—the point in time when we lose a lot more of ourselves, literally, to technology and another reason that life in the 21st century is about to get a lot more Blade Runner.
[Photo credits: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr, Wikipedia, Steve Jurvetson/Flickr]