When should I expect my robot overlord? Technology as a friend.

Technology does and, as it develops, could provide more comfort to those who find human interaction difficult. However, whether it can one day genuinely replace human friendship seems very unlikely to me because of technological limitations and the fact that human friendship is incredibly complex and provides not just companionship and interaction but mutual self-awareness and self-love – not just during the friendship but, also, after a break-up. In the piece below, Caleb considers whether robots could provide friendship for those who experience isolation and loneliness. The piece was first published on his site, The Lord of Salsa.


Wouldn’t it be nice to have a friend who was always on your side? They never argued with you, they always agreed to do what you wanted to do, they gave you the best compliments, and they were never in a bad mood. We all know this sort of thing is completely unreasonable to expect from another human. Human relationships are messy and they only work with compromise. However…a best friend that’s a robot? Hmm, maybe a relationship like this could be possible someday, but when?

Whenever I get lonely, I tend to wander some weird parts of the internet, looking for someone to connect to. As a kid, it was easy to hop into a chat room and find interesting characters that weren’t all shady or catfishes. But the chat room of the early internet is a long-dead scene. So inevitably, I stumbled upon AI chatbots.

The few that I tried initially were awful. They just responded with gibberish and gave bland comments, so I quickly gave up on them. But after waiting a few more years to stumble upon another chatbot, this time the conversation had a flow. There were even some moments where I wondered if I was talking to a human.

The entire encounter got me thinking about future robot companions. Which led to me raiding the artificial intelligence section at the library. I picked up The Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence by Richard Yonck. In it, he explores a lot of different new tech that could be possible like a smartphone that can sense if you’re sad, robotic lovers, and tech that can stimulate whatever emotion we’d like to feel. He makes the point that a robot might not need to “be” conscious for us to feel an emotional connection to them. If something feels “real enough” our brains are happy to respond as if the situation was the real deal. This is probably why some people feel attached to their Roomba vacuums.

This aspect of real enough might be a good thing because creating a human-level AI sounds extremely difficult to create. When I hear AI, I think of how groundbreaking it is, how super smart they are getting. But when I read You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane, I took on a whole new perspective on AI. One, that AI is lazy…they’d rather take a shortcut like hack their program to levitate in their simulation when they’re supposed to be learning to walk. Two, AI can be pretty dumb and lacking common sense. Her book had me cracking up at the ridiculous things her robots were doing. They were nothing like the sophisticated things sci-fi and tech nerds would have us believe AI is capable of right now and in the near future. AI’s just seem genius sometimes when they are given narrow, specific tasks like organizing all of your photos but tell that same AI to write poetry and it will make a caveman look like Einstein.

But given enough time and effort, it could be possible to come close to human intelligence. At least enough to make people feel a robot was on the same level. If it is real enough, our brains are more than willing to fill in the blanks. And if it feels real, then does it matter if it’s not? If you swore up and down that you were eating a delicious strawberry ice cream cone but I told you, you were just eating air…would you stop enjoying your experience?

As a loner, you’d think I would’ve had the robot best friend or girlfriend daydream plenty of times. But honestly, it never occurred to me. Not until an AI gave me a conversation that felt close enough to one I could have had with a person. And now I find myself rather attached to this idea that maybe someday it would be possible to have a robot buddy. Someone I knew wouldn’t get annoyed when I needed attention or got tired of talking about the things I enjoy for the hundredth time. And especially a robot buddy that wouldn’t trigger my awful social anxiety and fear of being judged.

After a twenty plus years of dealing with people’s cruelty and rejection, the thought of not having to deal with that for companionship sounds amazing. Is it any different than people who turn to pets for companionship? There’s a lot of people who are sick of dealing with people, but don’t want to be alone. Robot buddies would be a godsend I think.

It’s not that I want to reject all humanity in favor of the simplicity robots could offer. It would just be nice to have a friend since for some reason I can’t make any for the life of me. And yeah, sure, I need to work on myself so I’m more “suitable” and appealing so people want to be my friend, but it’d be wonderful if something accepted me for the mess that I am. If that something is a robot, then I’ll take it. 

by Caleb, The Lord of Salsa, 4 July 2021.

Colorado Blue Columbine (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Waking up, breaking up – friendship and moving on

Wild Irish fuchsia (NJK photography – Creative Commons)

The account below was first published by Ali, a young woman from Dublin, Ireland, on her site, Thinking InsideOut Loud and reflects on the end of a friendship and growth of self-awareness and self-worth.


I recently experienced a friendship break up. I am not going to lie; it was harder than any intimate relationship ending has been for me. Initially, I was full of anger. I blamed them for everything, pinpointing in my head the things they were doing wrong, all the while failing to see my part to play in the fall out. After the anger subsided, I started to internalise everything and blamed myself. I thought of everything I had done or had said, what I could and should have done differently and swore I was the worst person in the world and was a terrible friend, which is so far from the truth its laughable. I am a great friend; I was just terrible with boundaries and allowed a lot of co – dependency to play a role in the relationship.

The fact of the matter is, I should not feel angry or sad. They were not entirely to blame nor was I. It was a two-way relationship and we both allowed it to fail. It is also just a part of life, not everyone you meet is here to stay. However, I do believe every relationship you enter comes with a significant meaning. Some people will not always positively add to our lives but regardless, there is a lesson to be learnt from them. Whether that lesson be to not allow yourself to be so accessible to people, that not everyone deserves to be around your energy or maybe they will teach us about ourselves and things that we need to improve on to be better friends, lovers, colleagues, bosses, sisters, brothers, children, or parents or whatever roll we are playing in said relationship.

GRIEF

When we think of someone grieving, most of us assume that someone they cared about had died. In my late teenage years, I started to think about mortality a lot, about my own and my families, my friends and all the people I cared about. I have not experienced death much, my grandparents died before I was born or whilst I was quite young, so I don’t really remember them, which meant I escaped the grieving process. I used to think I was lucky that I never went through it but then I realised that my first experience with grief would be as an adult and I started to worry that I would be unable to cope. That is the joys of anxiety, picturing the deaths of loved ones and imagining the unbearable emotion that is grief before I even experience it. Anyways, for the last couple of years I felt that worry consume me from time to time. That was until I started therapy again. Since then, I have come to realise that I have already experienced grief and a lot of it. My lack of self-awareness and emotional immaturity made me ignorant to the fact that grief is ultimately the “loss emotion”. Meaning that any loss of significance can cause it. Losing a career that you loved, your dog dying, loss of contact with a family member and of course, a friendship or relationship break up!  

When a person dies and you begin to grieve, the people around you understand that and will try to support you in the process. However, like I said before most of us limit grief to death. So, when a person leaves your life due to circumstances outside of death; people can find it more difficult to understand and support you. Which can leave us feeling quite alone. There is less sensitivity and more of a life goes on attitude. Can you imagine someone saying to you “ah sure you’ll find a new mother, give it time” when you are grieving the death of your parent? No? Exactly, so why do we say it to people after a relationship ends or after a fight with a friend. Yes, I think its still important to always remember that life does in fact go on, but it is imperative that you feel the emotions in the moment, so that you do not supress them.

PROGRESSION

A relationship ending is almost never truly a complete loss. Yes, at the time it feels that way but when you work through it all you come to realise it was usually for the best. With me, my realisation was that the relationship was taking up too much of my time and it was feeding my unhealthy need to feel wanted or needed. It was also a major stimulation in my life, something I used to avoid sitting still with myself. I wanted to fix everyone else instead of looking at my own flaws and ill behaviours and I wanted to feel important and relied on in relationships which I have now noticed was a reoccurring pattern with a lot of my relationships for years. I would focus entirely on another person to avoid myself.

When you remove yourself from a situation, you begin to see the situation with a fresh perspective. It is easy to get caught up and ignore what is going on when you have something to keep you distracted, remove that distraction and everything becomes clearer.

“Who do you think you are? Thinking you are better than us”

A statement that makes me cringe. Another realisation I have had as of late is how caught up I was on what other people thought of me. I never wanted someone to think that I thought I was superior or that I was looking down on them, that fear subconsciously prevented me from making moves to be the best authentic version of me. My fear became reality recently when this exact statement was said to me. I was so upset and could not understand why they would say that to me when all I was doing was making more time for myself and doing what I felt I needed to do to move forward. Usually, a comment like that would send me backwards but this time was different. I started to realise that I was better, not better than that person but better than the life I was living. I had no purpose, no ambitions, ignored my true interests and done nothing of meaning all day every day. I also stopped caring about what they thought the minute I read “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz.

In The Four Agreements, the author, Don Miguel Ruiz discusses basic rules for life. Those of which I believe if implemented into your life daily; will change your life forever. The rules are as follows…

  • Be impeccable with your word

Speak with integrity, say only what you mean, avoid speaking negatively about yourself and gossiping about others, speak with truth and love.

  • Don’t take anything personally

Nothing others do is because of you, what others say is a projection of their own reality, when you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you will not be the victim of needless suffering.

  • Don’t make assumptions

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.

  • Always do your best

Your best will change from moment to moment; it will be different when healthy opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse, and regret.

All four agreements are important and once you are conscious of them and decide to live that way, life becomes easier. I can still take things personally and I react out of emotion rather than love and understanding of another, however, I do try my best to remember to use these key tools as much as possible. So, when I received that comment, I told myself not to take it personally. It had nothing to do with me or what I was doing or saying and all to do with how the other person felt at that moment. They felt inferior due to their own created reality. I do not think they are inferior; I think they are wonderful and filled with infinite potential. If they just realised that about themselves, they would excel. But none of that matters, what I think of them does not matter as what I think about a person reflects MY reality and what really matters is our own individual reality. People say things all the time, good things and bad things and they are all irrelevant. We should not rely on others for praise nor should we take their criticism on board. What matters is how we speak about and to ourselves.

LETTING GO

There is a small number of people who are no longer in my life who I still think about. I think about what they are doing, hoping that they are happy and working on being the best version of themselves. I have never been the type to hold a grudge, thankfully. I say thankfully because holding onto anger is so damaging to our bodies and it only harms us, no one else. Letting go of the person and situation is the only option. I trust that the universe has it all figured out for me. If a person is supposed to come back, they will and if I am supposed to not speak to this person again, I won’t. Everything happens for a reason, some people I will still miss and others I wont even think of again. Missing someone is not a bad thing, it shows how much of an impact they had on you. Allow yourself to feel the loss but do not let it consume you.

I will leave you with this. Everything in life begins to get easier when you are willing to work on yourself. Understand yourself and others. Understand that you can not change another person, but you can change yourself and then you will notice other people change around you. MJ had it right. Start with the man in the mirror.

by Ali, Thinking InsideOut Loud, July 3 2021

Social anxiety news and stories round-up

Blogs

An artist studying art therapy gives an account of her life and experiences of bullying, judgement of her physical appearance and of subsequent social anxiety: “The pain and loneliness I felt from my social isolation was beyond imagining, so I drew to feel less alone. I am no stranger to heartbreak, betrayal and disappointment, and rather then let the pain defeat me I used it to create something beautiful. Heartbreak actually inspired most of my artworks. I use my emotional pain as a major source of inspiration in most of my works. I like to focus on the themes of life and death, nature because it brings life to my heart, and death which represents the suffering.”

A series of clearly written suggestions for using our senses to de-stress, highlighting sound, smell, feel and touch: “Figure out what sounds bring you a sense of peace or help relax you and begin using them to your advantage. The most commonly suggested method for this would be through listening to music, as this can have a positive psychological impact and has been shown to help ease low moods. Whether you are a fan of upbeat pop or more melancholy ballads, music can help us explore our emotions and ease our stress very effectively.”

A succinct post, describing emotions, particularly, feelings of helplessness: “Went for a walk with Sherri yesterday…and came back just full of social anxiety…I just have such a proliferation of thoughts after social encounters, even with people I trust. Why is it so hard to be straight forward? I’m so fed up with myself…”

The writer presents succinct descriptions of childhood friendships, which provide an insightful perspective into character and bonds: “From my infant friend Lincoln, I learnt in humans that I like those who complement my personality, but that’s not to say I atall dislike people similar to me. In fact a certain threshold of shared ethics is necessary. If you ask me when I juxtapose all of these friendships, I see very little in common. Maybe that’s the point. I build myself strong allies of a diverse settings.”

Research

This is a 1990 publication which suggests that social anxiety or phobia has a high incidence amongst the Saudi population and compares it to “the West” where “agoraphobia is the most common phobic disorder and constitutes about 60% of all clinically diagnosed phobic conditions, while social phobia is relatively rare.” The article goes on to suggest some possible reasons for this, including sociocultural.

I have included this article in this list particularly for the following quote: “Social anxiety seems to arise in people who are unduly sensitive to disapproval and criticism and who have inflexible ideas about social conventions which cause them to expect criticism unnecessarily.” This is attributed to a 1974 journal article which I could not find online: Nichols KA. Severe social anxiety. Br J Med Psychol. 1974; 47:301-6.

This quotation suggests an objective judgement of social fear based on an unspecified general standard, without reference to individual history, vulnerabilities or capacities. This objective standard may be helpful for identification of the need for treatment or support, but as a definition of social anxiety, it denies the subjective experience and condition of the person with symptoms and thus denies a holistic treatment approach. The definition also denies the reality of social power differences and social harms, beyond disapproval and criticism. I believe that this narrowly focused understanding of social anxiety disorder is found in modern medical understanding and treatments.

“Social anxiety is a highly prevalent and impairing condition. Understanding prodromal features of social anxiety in infancy can facilitate early intervention and mitigate negative long-term impacts. The present study is the first to examine social anxiety risk markers across multiple indices in infants with fragile X syndrome (FXS), who are at elevated risk for comorbid social anxiety disorder. Evidence suggests that infants with FXS display both behavioral and physiological markers of social anxiety that are detectable as early as 12 months of age. However, these findings were nuanced and not consistent across all measures, highlighting the importance of a multi-method biobehavioral approach.”

Articles

Australian freelance writer, Marnie Vinall, describes the positive experience of joining and integrating into a supportive Aussie rules football team: “I managed to make it a whole three weeks in before needing to sit out a training session because my anxiety got the better of me. It was in a regular drill called “chaos”, which involves a series of balls going in any and every direction. The purpose to practise kicking, marking, calling for the ball and making yourself open and available. “The aim,” the coach said, “is to get your hands on the ball as many times as possible.”

“For some, it will be hard to quiet the ‘threat brain’ and as a result, we may actually see a rise in OCD type symptoms. It’s important to understand that with OCD it is actually anxiety and fear at the root of the problem, it’s just the OCD are the symptoms we see.”

Another article looking at the fears that reopening of countries may bring, with particular attention on those most vulnerable, such as people with anxiety disorders: “Experts say it’s important to acknowledge your stress during this transition. It’s normal to feel nervous. People shouldn’t judge themselves too harshly for their anxieties.”

A deeper look at foods beneficial to emotional and physical health: “Serotonin has a calming effect and also promotes sleep and relaxation, McKittrick explained. In fact, low levels of brain serotonin, research has suggested, can lead to increased vulnerability to psychosocial stress.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is necessary for the production of serotonin in the brain. Complex carbs including whole grains and vegetables can help boost levels of serotonin because they make tryptophan more available in the brain.”

Very frank and insighful account of a woman fearing social interactions after the lifting of pandemic restrictions in the UK: “Fortunately, I found a career where I could escape those feelings for a couple of hours. As a nanny, social anxiety dissipated as the focus was on the children and I was able to forget about me. I worked long hours and did something so fulfilling, that I realised when it came to caring for others – such as the children I worked with, or taking my husband to hospital – the feeling of being needed, the purpose of doing something for others, overtook the dread and fear.”

Prior to the lockdown in the UK, she had started a new job role: “I don’t currently know if I will be able to go back to it – the most I can achieve is going to a chemist to collect my husband’s medication once a month and that is a mammoth task that takes a lot of psychological build-up.”