The relationships between human beings and robots have been a significant part of science fiction since Isaac Asimov’s robot stories and novels, starting in 1950, and movies and television shows like Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lost in Space, and Battlestar Galactica. These works dramatize both the promise and the threat in relationships between humans and self-aware electronic entities.
The promise of close friendship is exemplified by the relationship between Asimov’s human detective Elijah Baley and his robot collaborator R. Daneel Olivaw. In Asimov’s world, this is possible because robots have a built-in ethical system of robotic laws on which their sentience and behavior is founded. On the other hand, relations with the artificial intelligence (AI) computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey deteriorate and HAL becomes psychotic. At the worst, the cybernetic Cylons in Battlestar Galactica are implacable enemies of the human race and have only destruction and death on their minds. Conversely, in Blade Runner, humans are hunting down the synthetic humans, the replicants.
This book specifically asks, in the form of a philosophical investigation, whether human beings can have genuine synthetic friends. While a relatively slim book, it is a thorough analysis of the issue and includes both formal philosophical arguments and parallel sociological, psychological, and economic observations and commentary. Clearly, if someone rejects out of hand the entire proposition that humans and cybernetic entities can be friends, the discussion is over. The author argues that it is still worthwhile to examine the issue.
The books begins at a basic level with Aristotle’s analysis of friendship in his Nicomachean ethics, and expands the concept by looking at friendship from an aesthetic viewpoint and also as an expression of creating a “chosen family.” The economic and social dimensions of the manufacture, maintenance, and distribution of machines is a chapter on its own. This leads into a chapter on the social philosophy of technology, including the question of what makes a machine relatable.
An extensive analysis of friendship includes a discussion of what is a “bad” friend or what is a “bad” friendship. Two chapters share a common feature--the digital hermit. In the first, the digital hermit is described sociologically--physical isolation with digital immediacy (friendships through technology). In the second, the investigation tries to differentiate between friends at a distance (through a screen) and synthetic friends. Another chapter comments on the social integration of synthetic friends. A list of criticisms and the author’s responses form the penultimate chapter. These criticisms are conceptual, practical, and ethical. In the concluding chapter, the author reviews the arguments in the preceding chapters and concludes that it may be possible to have synthetic friends.
The chapter on the maintenance, manufacture, and distribution of robots is one that raises issues that ought to pervade the discussion. Who ultimately owns my synthetic friend? Is it communicating back to some corporate database everything that is worth knowing about me? Is having the robot a lifetime commitment to upgrades (at a cost)? The two chapters in which the digital hermit is a theme serve as a critique of modern social relationships and as a foreshadowing of an environment and market for synthetic friends.
Regardless of whether the reader is predisposed to accept or reject the idea of synthetic friends, reading this book is time well spent.