A psychoanalytic perspective on simulation: are we changing ourselves more than we think?

I had a long flight recently so I read Sherry Turkles fascinating essay, Whither Psychoanalysis in a Computer Culture?

Many insights relevant to simulation: and the challenging question whether our attempts to make systems that seem real (in an emotional as well as a visual and intellectual sense) are actually changing us and our attitudes.

Psychoanalysis has its object relations theory – that people internalise others (mothers, fathers, etc.) as objects which then shape their psyches. But what if the objects they internalise are themselves objects – what Prof Turkle calls relational artifacts such as talking dolls, robot pets, robot carers, or simulated babies used in medical training?

Relational artifacts are programmed to call out our own programmed responses: “When a robotic creature makes eye contact, follows your gaze, and gestures towards you, you are provoked to respond to that creature as a sentient and even caring other”. (As users of the Laerdal simulated baby reported, they felt genuine emotion if the baby died – even though they knew it was only a machine.)

She argues that:”We are in a different world from the old “AI debates” of the 1960s to 1980s in which researchers argued about whether machines could be “really” intelligent. The old debate was essentialist; the new objects sidestep such arguments about what is inherent in them and play instead on what they evoke in us.” Look at the examples on this blog of simulations which are designed to arouse or evoke states in their users – even at the crudest level, simulating the effects of gunshot wounds in a combat trainer, or producing fear and shock in a “Christian” simulation. Journals such as Presence are also exploring these ideas, studying the ways in which “teleoperators and virtual environments” interact with us.

Prof Turkle asks: “How will interacting with relational artifacts affect peoples way of thinking about themselves, their sense of human identity, of what makes people special? …the sight of children and the elderly exchanging tenderness with robotic pets brings science fiction into everyday life and technophilosophy down to earth. In the end, the question is not just whether our children will come to love their toy robots more than their parents, but what will loving itself come to mean? We make our technologies, and our technologies make and shape us.”

Of course you could always make this argument about literature or art: these too are artefacts designed to play on our emotions, and in a way to shape us. (James Joyce: the artists role to forge within the smithy of his soul the uncreated consciousness of his race – or something like that!)

You could also argue (and Baudrillard has) the same about the mass media.

But such massively available simulation, so well researched and supported by unprecedented amounts of computer power, surely has to make a difference to us?

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