Why Machines Will Never Feel Empathy: A Q&A With MIT’s Sherry Turkle
The pathbreaking MIT professor on her new memoir, and the past, present, and future of our efforts to make technology feel human
In the fall of 1976, Sherry Turkle was recruited to the faculty of MIT to join what would soon become the program on Science, Technology, and Society — one of the nation’s first. After having written a book on French psychoanalysis — a “sociology of the sciences of the mind,” as she describes it — Turkle was fascinated with the cultural forces that shift our thought.
So when she encountered computers for the first time, she had one pressing question on her mind: How would these new machines change us?
Turkle has spent the last four decades investigating that question as aggressively and rigorously as anyone alive. She is the founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and the author of the influential books, The Second Self and Alone Together. Turkle has spent her career captivated by the transformative power of online identities and was an early critical voice cautioning that the machines that we had come to see as objects to use would eventually turn us into objects.
The result of all this, argues Turkle, has been a decline in empathy. And in her new memoir The Empathy Diaries, she explores how her own interest in empathy is deeply personal, and how that informed her thinking about technology and society.
When her mother remarried soon after divorcing her father, Turkle was instructed to use her stepfather’s last name, Turkle, instead of her biological father’s name, Zimmerman.
She kept the secret for decades. The experience taught Turkle the power of identity and the costs of a lack of empathy. “I had to figure out how to be empathic to the people in my family and try to figure out — what might be their motivations?” she said. “I tried to put myself in their place; empathy became a survival strategy.”
OneZero caught up with Turkle to discuss how her lifelong quest to understand her roots has affected her work, what it was like to be a woman at MIT in the ’70s, and why robo-therapists are just no good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OneZero: You were recruited to MIT with a background in psychoanalysis, at the dawn of the computer age. How did the two subjects relate?
Sherry Turkle: At MIT, they had a new science of mind — cognitive science, artificial intelligence. They were excited by the idea that I would ask those kinds of questions about this new cognitive science of mind. The day my foot touched MIT soil, I met people who were talking about their mind as a machine, and I just fell in love. I wasn’t going to be writing about psychoanalysis anymore — I was going to be writing about this.
I saw something they didn’t see. They thought I was going to be writing about cognitive science and artificial intelligence and yadda yadda — and I saw that people were falling in love with their computers.
People were using the computer to think about love, their mind, how they’re going to control their passion, their relationships. So my next book was called The Intimate Machine until someone stole my title. But people said, “That’s silly, the computer is just a tool.” And I kept saying: “No.”
I immediately saw that this new technology was going to have a profound influence on our psyches, on our view of what was human, on the line between people and machines — and I was launched into this new research direction.
Over time, I began to be seen as “off-brand.”
What do you think about the concept of a mind as a machine, popular in the early days of A.I.?
The early models of the mind-as-machine were very primitive. So it was easier to say, “Oh no. The choice is between mind-as-mechanism and mind-as-meaning.” Which is what the debate was when I got there.
Things have gotten extremely more complex. Now A.I. has teamed up with neuroscience in a way that’s very interesting and constructive, and quite fascinating. There are ways in which artificial intelligence tools are going to help us understand neuroscience better. What’s true is that we cycle through models of mind at an increasingly rapid rate.
Freud was trying to figure out the mechanism of the neurological mind. And he didn’t feel as though his theory was in contrast with the fact that the mind is a neurological mechanism. Ultimately we’re both. The question is, what do you look at?
For decades, you pretended that your stepfather, Milton Turkle, was actually your biological father. How did this change you?
Over the course of my life, it meant different things. As a child, I just knew that it was a taboo. I had no idea why it was terrible. Why no one could speak my [real] name. This is the wisdom of children: I knew if I asked anybody, it would make it worse.
At first, I took it as something terribly wrong with him. Then, of course, it became — there must be something wrong with me. On the surface, I was Miss Perfect. A plus. Beloved and cherished by all of these adults — my grandmother, grandfather, aunt, mother. But there must be something terrible about me. Why else couldn’t I have a name, or a father? And then I had to take on this other person’s name when I knew that was a lie. It was a terrible burden, and there was no one I could talk to.
My mother was a wonderful, warm, charismatic, brilliant woman. She loved me deeply. The tragedy of me and my mother is that I was so angry at her for taking my father away from me that I couldn’t love her back the way she deserved.
It came out in these tiny cruelties that I did to her. In a way, they’re my unconscious allowing itself to express my rage.
In 1985, David Hellerstein interviewed you for Esquire magazine — but when he asked you about your parents, you shut down. The secret about your father had not yet come out. What did that moment do for you?
They sent me this lovely psychiatrist! He was supposed to write a piece of substance. I’d already been named one of the 40 young people who was changing the nation. It was supposed to be positive. And I blow up at him! I behave like a baby psychotic when he asks: “So, tell me about your parents!”
He writes this very astute comment: “Well, she’s supposed to be the expert on the integration of thought and feeling, but why wear so many masks?”
I can picture him walking out the door, and I just said to myself: “This has to end.” I called my sister and brother and said, “I’ve kept a secret of mommy’s.” And I began my life.
I’ll talk to a robot about my mortgage… I’m not anti-robot, or anti-chat bot… But to talk about my loneliness, and my fears of this disease? Please. Give me a break.
You discovered that one reason your mother kept you separated from your birth father was that he had conducted experiments on you when you were a baby. How did this affect you?
Every time somebody at MIT tries to cross the line, I’m like: “Don’t treat people like objects. Even worse, don’t treat objects like people.”
You want a robot who does psychotherapy? I’m worried about getting Covid. Less now than before, because now I live in such a state of isolation, and there are no people dropping packages at the door. And now that the vaccines are happening, I’m probably a little bit less than at the beginning, where I really was quite anxious.
With all of that — you really think that a computer program is who I need to talk to about this? A computer program that doesn’t know why I don’t want to be on a ventilator? I need to talk to somebody who has a body. And who knows what it is to be intubated. That would be an interesting conversation for me. Somebody who has been on a ventilator. And who knows what it is not to be able to breathe.
That’s the kind of person I’m interested in talking with about my anxieties. If you have a problem with your daughter and miss her, and you can’t hug her, and you just feel as if you’re missing the thing that you most rely on to give yourself a sense of connection, don’t give me a robot, please.
I’ll talk to a robot about my mortgage. There are these wonderful robots. A student at MIT who I really admired did a program that ran you through job interview scripts, and how to present yourself in a job interview, yadda yadda yadda. Fine.
I’m not anti-robot, or anti-chat bot. I’m not out to stop the field from developing things that are helpful. But really to talk about my loneliness, and my fears of this disease, and my anguish about not having contact with my daughter? Please. Give me a break.
Yet, it seems we are headed in this direction, especially with the increasing presence of robots in health care…
It’s the wrong thing for the job. And people become so infatuated with the limitless possibilities of what artificial intelligence can do that they lose sight of what’s good for the people.
And then they start to [discuss] A.I. ethics, and then they really lose sight of what’s good for the people. Because then they’re all worried about what’s good for the ethics of the robot. I’ve been on so many committees for A.I. ethics, and we’re talking about the program, and who should be vetting it.
I’m just like, “Why do we have this program? To be chatting with old people about end-of-life care?” Not who should be giving input to it. But why is that a good entity?
Your book argues empathy is a trait that is unique to humans. Why is this, exactly?
Empathy is very complex. It’s not just, “Oh, kumbaya. I know how you feel.” It’s really a commitment to listen, to be there for the other person, in a very active way. And that begins in solitude. It’s in solitude that empathy is born because if you don’t have the capacity for solitude, you can’t then turn to another person and really listen to them — not just be asking them to give you what will make you feel whole.
Empathy is also born in vulnerability because it’s human vulnerability that allows you to show yourself and be willing to open up enough.
So that’s where I think that this time just sitting in front of our screens is not good practice, for either of these things. On screens, we can hide. We can hide from each other. The hiding has made us feel less vulnerable. And anything that makes us less vulnerable makes us feel more comfortable. So people always try to make themselves feel less vulnerable.
In the fall of 1984, MIT denied you tenure, citing a rule that you had to be in two departments — a new rule, effective starting with you. Meanwhile, a man coming up for tenure in your department was quickly assigned to an additional department, and earned tenure. How did you handle this?
I love the way MIT fires me before they rehire me; it’s a very telling story. When it was time to get rid of me, they made up a rule that would get rid of me without saying they were getting rid of me. It was a way to get rid of me without saying anything bad about me because they’d all voted me tenure.
I said: “I think you’ve treated a man differently than you’ve treated me, and I’m not in the mood to sue. I’m in the middle of very important work. But the New York Times will be writing about this.” Because by then, I was famous! I had my 15 minutes of fame. I would be on the cover of Ms. Magazine as woman of the year in January.
But I didn’t come out of the experience like, “Yay! Gangbusters! Now I’m going to take over MIT! I’m going to become a department chair, I’m going to become a dean, I’m going to show them!” I came out ashamed, chastened. As though I had been rejected and I should hide. I stayed to myself and I wrote my books.
It took me decades — it took me until yesterday — to [be proud of my success]. I think that was a typical response of women in tech and women in science. I now tell women: “When you’ve had a bump in your career, first of all, expect it. And when you win, don’t snap defeat out of the jaws of victory. Don’t hide.”
Do you think your career would have been different if you had been more vocal?
I think I could’ve had more of an impact. A different kind of impact. These guys were having conferences all over the world, joining academies of all different sorts, having these pow wows. I was very late to that game. They didn’t invite me. I started to get invited when women started to get invited, and people said, “Hey, why isn’t Sherry Turkle there?”
One story that crystallizes my experience at MIT. I had a lovely colleague who, when my tenure came up, had to read my book and vote. He’d never come into my office. We’d never had lunch, we’d never had brunch, we’d never had crunch! He hadn’t said two words to me. He came into my office and said: “This is a remarkable book. I’ve never read anything like it.”
That was a moment of deep truth about what my generation of women faced. It wasn’t a #MeToo moment — these men didn’t grope — and it wasn’t a moment of deep “I hate women” — he didn’t hate women. I had just been invisible.
At Radcliffe, I never thought “Why am I reading by candle in the basement at Memorial Church while everyone else is in sunlit libraries?” I just accepted the second-class status. I felt lucky to be there.
I still have that disease. That’s not over yet.
What does it feel like that we’re all now asking the questions you started asking nearly 50 ago?
I reread The Second Self (1984) and thought “God, this is really a hot book!” Some of the examples of children programming were kind of sad because I was optimistic that children would get into the guts of the machine and learn more than it turned out was commercially viable for them to know.
I was in a position, by my education and my intellectual preparation, and by my proximity to the very most advanced thinking at the time, to see what was coming. I did see what was coming, but it’s not surprising to me that it’s taken such a long time for these issues to come into the mainstream. People didn’t want to look at this — they wanted to look at the shiny object.
I’m able to measure the resistance to action on these things. It’s like saying to a social scientist: “You’ve been talking about income inequality for a long time. Are you surprised that only now people are more willing to acknowledge it?” What do you say? The implications of income inequality are immense. People don’t want to talk about it. It’s like institutional racism in the U.S. — one of these deep structural issues that our country has to contend with. Now it’s time to face them.