What kind of relationships are appropriate with machines?

What kinds of relationships are appropriate with machines? How are our answers to this changing?

Turkle focuses on the relationships between users and machines by examining the psychological impacts of machines on their users. Designers take an instrumental view to machines because they focus on what machines do for users, but users’ relationships with machines are based on the way that they influence our ways of seeing the world, the way we think and the nature of our relationship with others. In our one-on-one relationships to computers, Turkle thinks that the Rorschach effect is at play wherein the user projects his/her mental and emotional states on the machine. The machine, therefore, is a second self that extends our mental and emotional state.

In this interaction, the user is interacting with the subjective computer (as opposed to the instrumental computer), which does things to us by acting as an externalization of our mind, an object for projection and reflection. In online interactions, users connect with other users by presenting themselves through virtual personae. Users adopt personas that are different from their real world personalities and express unexplored aspects of their selves. Turkle invokes the Windows metaphor by pointing out the multiple, distributes personalities that are active in online interactions. The machine, in this case, is a mediator for person-to-person interactions. Lastly, our relationships with relational artifacts such as robots are more intimate because the machines are designed to evoke an emotional response from the user and give users a reciprocal emotion. Thus, there is a compassionate relationship between the user and the machine

Turkle’s research demonstrates that the relationship between users and machines is changing as affective machines become more prevalent. Affective machines detect the emotions of the user and respond to them in a caring manner. Turkle’s research with children demonstrates that while three decades ago children evaluated machines on the basis of its intellect, now they relate to machines based on their sympathetic connection. The perception of the machine has changed from that of the Aristotelian rational being to that of a compassionate companion.

What is a “relational artifact” and why does Turkle emphasize their importance?
”What will it mean to a person when their primary daily companion is a robotic dog?”

Turkle defines devices such as robotic pets and digital creatures as relational artifacts. She calls them relational because people are not intended as their users, but as their companions. She focuses on the empathetic qualities of relational artifacts as the attribute that makes them companions for their users. Turkle demonstrates that children project emotional states on to relational artifacts, but these beings are also designed to detect emotional states of their human companions and reciprocate with emotional responses.

As machines evolve into companions for humans, they can be baby-sitters for children and caregivers for seniors. People may see these devices as companions and love them more than their family members and friends. Turkle thinks that if and when these relationships become commonplace we have to ask questions about who we are, our relationships with others and our definitions of love.

“How will interacting with relational artifacts affect people’s way of thinking about themselves, their sense of human identity, what makes people special?”

As people develop compassionate relationships with machines, we have to ask questions about what makes people unique and special. In the 1970’s, the important question about computational technology was whether they could actually think. Machines gained value and significance through their ability to emulate human intellect. However, contemporary machines are assessed on their basis of establishing compassionate relationships with their users/companions.

“Now in a world in which machines present themselves as emotional, what is left for us?”

Are relational artifacts simply manufactured humans that have been taught to emulate human intellect and emotion? Can they be afforded the same rights and privileges as humans? Turkle discusses how some of these moral and ethical questions are addressed in the movie Blade Runner. The movie is set in a world where humans and androids are separated on the basis of their ability to have empathetic relationships. However, over the course of the movie, the protagonist of the movie falls in love with one android that reciprocates his love, and his life is saved by another android. In their actions, the machines demonstrate the empathy that their species was designed to emulate (but was never considered genuine.) As the emotional capabilities of machines develop, it will become difficult to distinguish between artificial and sincere emotions. If empathy is the test of humanity, then can we distinguish between human and relational artifacts as their ability to connect on an emotional basis becomes more sophisticated?

What is embodied learning and what are its implications for learning within an LMS?

Dall’Alba and Barnacle discuss how Western epistemology and pedagogy is based on disembodied knowing i.e. developing knowledge and skills in decontextualized environments. Thus, the knowledge acquisition is divorced from the practice, content is valued higher than process. Embodied learning is based on a model of integrated mind and body, and it provides education in context of practice. Dall’Alba and Barnacle argue that Learning Management Systems are also built on the basis of these epistemological and pedagogical models. Although Learning Management Systems offer greater consistency and efficiencies, they are built on a decontextualized model and therefore disembodied knowledge.


Dall’Alba, Gloria & Barnacle, Robyn (2005).Embodied Knowing in Online Environments. Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 5, 2005

Friesen, Norm (2014)Telepresence and Tele-absence: A Phenomenology of the (In)visible Alien Online. Phenomenology & Practice, Volume 8 (2014), No. 1, pp. 17-31.

Turkle, Sherry (1996) Who am We? Wired 4.01, January 1996

Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone? | Talk Video | TED.com

Turkle, Sherry (2004) Whither Psychoanalysis in Computer Culture. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 2004, Vol. 21, No. 1, 16–30

Turkle, Sherry (2012) Alone Together. Basic Books

Turkle, Sherry (2012) The Flight From Conversation. The New York Times, April 21, 2012

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