Something very creepy happened to me last week. I had just been for a stunningly beautiful spring walk at a local forest park with Zara, one of my dogs.
We got back into the car afterwards and from the driver’s seat (don’t judge me) I said to Zara who was sitting in the back , “Well that was truly gorgeous, Zara. And YOU are gorgeous!” A few seconds later I heard a voice coming from my mobile phone on the passenger seat beside me, in that arch, neutral, robotic voice we’ve all grown to know and hate from automated help-lines and Google directions: “Thank you. You’re gorgeous too – inside and out!”
My mouth dropped open with astonishment. I was outraged, bemused, astounded and revolted. I must have inadvertently pressed some button on my phone (though I can’t think when) inviting my conversation to be listened to and my life commented on. Down with this kind of thing, as Father Ted would say!
Is there really somebody out there programming these responses who feels it is in any way meaningful to tell random people that they are gorgeous, inside and out? Maybe this kind of vapid affirmation is meant to encourage in me a healthy self-regard. Or prevent me from feeling too badly about myself if I have just, say, killed a spider or looked the other way as I passed a homeless person on the street. Are we sleep-walking towards a place where these kind of interactions actually mean something to us?
The beauty of the Christian faith lies in the gracious truth that we are not only loved when we are gorgeous. We are loved just as deeply at those times when we are at our ugliest and most spiteful. We are not loved because we are lovely, we are lovely because we are loved. This can be a place of the most wonderful freedom, and is the starting point of everything that is good.
The University of Portsmouth has been doing some ground-breaking work in the area of robotics over recent years. It has carried out a study comparing the reactions of children to a real therapy dog and a robotic therapy dog.
The children enjoyed both, though most preferred the real dog. However, afterwards, there were actually more positive emotions reported arising from the robot dog, and certain children who had low immunity or were allergic to or frightened of dogs were able to benefit from the robot in a way that they couldn’t have with the real dog.
Portsmouth University has also been working on virtual carers for the elderly, an artificial digital system which presents as an avatar on screen. This is not intended as a substitute for care by real people, but as a system to alleviate isolation for those who have to spend long stretches of time on their own. It has had some excellent outcomes in terms of improved mental health and alleviation of loneliness among those taking part in the study.
There are clearly great benefits to this field of research, yet instinctively both of these examples horrify me. I think my anxiety stems from a fear that if these artificial animals and humans become too effective and intuitive and responsive – too much of a blessing, as it were – where does that leave those of us made of flesh and blood and bone, with all the kinks and imperfections that come with that? Are we at risk of losing our collective soul?
I have no answers of course. But as people of faith it is better for us to engage rather than bury our heads and wish it would all pass, as I have a tendency to do. Maybe our approach needs to be a intentionally positive one. To champion all creatures with beating hearts, rather than decrying innocent artificially-intelligent constructs.
My dog Zara, as a flesh and blood creature, has the regular canine issues of shedding hair and meaty breath. Yet she can truly be said to be gorgeous, inside and out.