Simulated Authenticity

Parker Busswood
CNET English 100
Aurelea Mahood
February 5, 2010


“Authenticity in the age of digital companions,” an article by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, explores the ever-changing landscape of human-machine interactions and delves into the issue of relational authenticity. Evolving technologies have allowed for the development of increasingly complex and sophisticated “relational artifacts” (Turkle 502) that are designed to communicate with humans realistically. The interactive nature of these digital companions can potentially allow users to experience therapeutic benefits through their relationships with these devices. However, as relational technologies continue to develop, spawning more faithful recreations of human characteristics and emotions, the “erosion of the line in the sand” (512) between humans and machines could forever impact the way we view and develop personal relationships.

Many studies, including those conducted by Turkle and her colleagues, have demonstrated the therapeutic ability of relational robots in a variety of settings, particularly in elder-care situations. By modeling a user’s behaviour and feelings, robots such as Paro are able to provide sick, elderly, or depressed people a means by which they can comfort themselves and attempt to resolve personal issues. Despite the fact that these relational artifacts are unable to understand or care about their users’ problems, their ability to respond to environmental stimuli and “push our Darwinian buttons” allows them to “inspire ‘the feeling of friendship’” (511). Even though the robot has lacks the capacity to understand or care about its user, it is interesting that people are able to experience beneficial effects based on the illusion that a digital creature appreciates and cares about them.

Although using digital companions may be advantageous for therapeutic purposes, this shift from human-to-human relationships to developing simulated relationships with machines marks a paradigm shift in the way we view authentic relationships. As the exposure of each successive generation to computational objects becomes more widespread, so too does the tendency to forge relationships and feel complex emotions towards these devices. The experiences that people have with digital companions could potentially result in less value being placed on authentic emotions or aliveness as a prerequisite for relationships. Another concern with integrating robotic technology into our culture is that we as a society will delegate more tasks to robots, becoming more reliant on the technology to handle responsibilities such as caring for the elderly.

The human desire to interact and build relationships with robots and other relational artifacts despite their lack of ability to understand or care about their user’s thoughts and feelings “indicates that traditional notions of authenticity are in crisis” (502). With the advent of sophisticated robotic technology, humans are no longer restricted to authentic relationships with each other, but rather they can interact and simulate relationships with machines. The continued expansion and development of relational technology will inevitably lead to closer replications of human emotions and abilities, blurring the line between authentic human relationships and those experienced with computational objects. This phenomenon illustrates the growing potential for a revolutionary shift from relationships based exclusively on human interaction to those which involve machines that simulate the authenticity of a human relationship.

Word count: 498


Turkle, Sherry. “Authenticity in the age of digital companions.” Interaction Studies 8.3 (2007): 501-517.  Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Feb. 2010. <


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